San Francisco, California
September 30, 2001
My phone blared out against my ear and I gingerly opened an eye to shut it off, wondering why I set my alarm so early in the day. The sun was shining brightly through the glass walls of Junnie’s loft and I felt the coffee table for my sunglasses before putting them on. My head was pounding incessantly and I had just closed my eyes when the phone blared out again. I picked it up, tempted to put it under a pillow or throw it against a wall, when I saw Junnie’s name flash on the screen and I held it up to my ear as I pressed the button to receive the call.
“How did the wedding go?” She asked, her voice unnaturally loud. “Did you wear the navy dress you showed me? Were there any cute guys there?”
“Junnie… Slow the hell down. Isn’t it a bit too early to be interrogating me?” I asked. My voice was hoarse and my tongue felt like sandpaper.
“It’s almost noon,” she said drily.
“Exactly.” I don’t really know why I said exactly. Nothing is making sense to me right now, either. I buried my head under one of the throw pillows and wished that my head would stop its throbbing.
“Exactly? How does that even make sense?” Junnie demanded. “How much did you drink last night?”
I sat up slowly, my hands cradling my head and tried to look for anything to drink. I cringed when i saw the empty bottle of champagne on the couch next to me, along with my shoes and my precious trench coat, smelling vaguely of alcohol. I was still wearing my tights, holes on its soles, a mysterious pain on my right great toe and wondered what exactly happened last night. “Jun… Didn’t you call me last night?”
“No… I was working all day yesterday,” she answered. “And I left my phone at home.”
I can slightly remember having a one sided conversation with someone, and knowing my penchance to call her whenever I get drunk, I just assumed that I had done it again. I don’t usually have vivid dreams when I am intoxicated, and certainly never one that involved my calling her.
“Are you sure?” I asked again, fairly positive that I had spoken to someone.
“I was sober yesterday, which is more than I can say for you… I don’t really think it should be my memory or perception of reality that you should be questioning.”
“You’re right,” I agreed. “I’m gonna go and bang my head against the wall now.”
“Take some Ibuprofen and have some soup,” she suggested. “Or is it fried foods? I can never remember what a good cure for a hangover is.”
“Junnie, I’m a nurse. I’m sure I can figure it out. I’ll talk to you later.”
I hung up the call before she can say anything else and walked to the bathroom to take a shower. I winced in pain when I gargled with the mouthwash, the motion from it making me feel sick. I was just about to take my tights off when I heard the doorbell ring. I wearily walked over to the front door, wondering who it could be. Opening the door slightly, I was greeted by a friendly looking kid, maybe in his twenties, standing at the other side with a plastic bag from CVS Pharmacy and a brown paper bag, a bike resting on the building wall just outside the window.
“Are you…” He paused, looking at his paper. “…Gia?”
I nodded silently, afraid that speaking would make me throw up. He handed me a clipboard, which I took without question.
“Please sign on the last line,” he requested politely.
“What am I signing for, exactly?”
“A bottle of Ibuprofen from CVS and some food,” he said. “Oh, I forgot to introduce myself. My name is Zach and I’m from TaskRabbit. We received an order from a friend of yours earlier to get this stuff for you. Your friend was pretty insistent that it had to be delivered today, before 1 p.m.”
“There are people you can hire to run errands like this?”
He nodded and I signed the paper and gave it back to him without even looking at the sender’s name. I didn’t need to read it to know who it is. Junnie. My best friend is the best. She knew just what to do in situations like this. I was about to walk over to my purse and grab my wallet to pay for the stuff when I heard his voice behind me.
“He took care of the bill.”
“He’s a she,” I corrected. “People always mistake her name for man. Please don’t say anything if she calls again. She’s very sensitive about this.”
“But his voice…”
“Her voice,” I said, with an emphasis on the word her, “her voice always sounds like that when she just woke up.”
He smiled at me in puzzlement then shook his head when I tried to give him a twenty dollar bill.
“He… She took care of the tip, too,” he said as he put his helmet back on. “Have a great day.”
I waited until I saw him ride off before I closed the door and walked to the kitchen, opening the bottle of Ibuprofen as I walked and helping myself to three of the tablets before grabbing a bottled water from the fridge. I sat myself down at the kitchen counter and opened the brown bag, the name of the restaurant on it unknown to me.
Spoon. Hmm, I’ve never been there.
Wondering what Junnie could have ordered for me, I lifted five small dishes with various side dishes, some I recognized and others I did not. There was cabbage kimchi, rolled egg, potato and apple salad, some kind of bean sprout dish and spinach with what looked like hot pepper paste and sesame oil. My tummy grumbled as the smell hit my nose and I instantly felt better already. The last container contained some kind of porridge with some whitish looking meat on top. Wondering if it was squid or something, I broke off the wooden chopsticks provided before helping myself to a piece. Abalone. Grabbing the long handled spoon from the bag, I started eating the food slowly, careful not to overwhelm my system too quickly.
After eating I took a shower before putting myself back in pajamas, the way I would have spent all weekend had I not promised to attend JB’s wedding. I sat down on the couch, a towel still wrapped around my hair, and picked up my phone as I turned the television on, a mug of hot tea on the table. I scrolled down my messages to make sure I hadn’t drunk texted anyone, and sighed with relief when all I saw were texts that I had sent while sober. I entered my password to my logs instinctively, going straight to the received calls only to see Junnie’s phone call from two days ago.
Hmm. Weird. Someone spoke to me last night, definitely.
Although the details were foggy, I am fairly definite about this. I hesitated for a brief second before opening my dialed call log, then rubbed my eyes when I did. There it was, on my screen, the evidence of my sin. An outgoing call to a Jung Jin, the number recorded on my phone as such, at 9:30 p.m., lasting nine and a half minutes. I stared at it in disbelief before I let out a frustrated scream.
I quickly scrolled up to my sister’s name and pressed the call button. I don’t care that she’s my sister. I am going to murder her.
“Hi Sis,” she answered cheerfully. “What’s up?”
“What’s up?” I repeated. ‘WHAT’S UP? What have you done?”
“Nothing,” she answered calmly.
“Nothing??? What did I say about erasing his message?”
She was quiet for a few seconds before she let out a sigh. ”You only said to erase his message, nothing about not saving his number.”
“You’re dead,” I threatened. “You’re dead next time I see you.”
“As if,” she retorted. “To kill me you’d have to come home and you’re not going to do that, are you?”
I didn’t answer her and she began speaking about something else, as if none of this just happened. She got me there. And she knew it.
It would help to remember exactly what I said. I could always just ask him and find out. NO. I am not doing that.
I trusted myself enough to know that I couldn’t have spoken about anything too crazy. I wouldn’t do anything like that, right? I definitely wouldn’t have done anything like that. I may be a lot of things but uncouth I was not.
In some ways it’s a good thing really that it was him I called, I thought, trying my hardest to be optimistic. I had already planned on never seeing him again anyway, and now I’ve just given myself more reason never to. I am a sensible person normally, not given to fits of impulse or spontaneity.
It was only one phone call… It’s not as if I’ve been talking to him since he texted me. One phone call. What could I possibly have said in nine and a half minutes? How much damage could I have done? Of course I wouldn’t say anything that would get me in trouble.
This is nothing as long as I don’t see him again, I tried to tell myself even as I searched my mind for any memory of the conversation we might have shared. Unable to recall anything still, I laid down in my sleeping bag and went back to sleep.
Park Hyatt Hotel
October 3, 2001
“How was Chuseok?” Hye Soo asked as I motioned for the bartender to come over. While I waited for my drink I allowed myself a look at her and noticed that as usual, she looked beautiful. Wearing a pantsuit and heels she looked every bit the strong woman that she is. Her nails, painted dark red, were wrapped around a wine glass as she looked at me while waiting for a response.
“Whiskey on the rocks,” I requested of the bartender when he came over then turned my attention back to my companion. “It was fine.”
“You were supposed to meet up with me that afternoon, no?”
I think I might have made those initial plans, yes, but after that phone call… An involuntary smile came over my face and I didn’t realize that Hye Soo was still watching me until I noted a slight narrowing of her eyes, as if she was trying to decipher what I was smiling about. Upon seeing this, I quickly adopted a more neutral expression.
“Something came up,” I said as I took a sip of my drink.
Let’s see… I spent the first two hours after the phone call still incredulous that that woman would call another person and actually voice those kinds of thoughts out loud, even more amazed that she would call me by mistake, drawing curious looks from my sisters. I shared dinner with my family dodging questions about my supposed girlfriend and when they were going to meet her. I gave them all cryptic answers and as if already anticipating this, my Omma had warned me that she would become like those hated Korean drama mothers and make life difficult for my girlfriend if I don’t bring her home soon, a threat I didn’t take too seriously since I knew that my mother would never do that, not unless she took an immediate dislike to a person.
I had already showered and gotten dressed to meet Hye Soo for a drink when I thought of Gia again… And the next thing I knew I was online looking for a way to get medication and food to her, even as I acknowledged that she looked like the type of person who would have that stuff readily available at home. She is a person used to taking care of others, I reminded myself, of course she would take care of herself as well. I knew though that I wouldn’t stop thinking about it if I didn’t do anything, so after much searching I finally found a place in San Francisco who can do just that.
There had been a bit of confusion at first, since they couldn’t seem to understand that I was calling from Korea and that I wanted the items delivered in a few hours’ time. I offered triple the amount what they would normally charge and all of a sudden we were all on the same page. I placed an order for some mild pain medication and juk, a staple for those feeling ill, patting myself on the back for finding the only restaurant in the area that offered it on the menu, wondering if she’s ever had it before, then berating myself since her Joon might be taking care of all this already.
He wouldn’t have known about her being drunk, I then reasoned with myself, she called me.
That’s right. She called me.
“Jin-ie…” I heard Hye Soo voice begin and I lifted my eyes to meet her dark ones, aware of the sudden interest in hers.
“Nothing important,” I said, taking a long swallow of my drink. “Nothing so important that would be worth mentioning.”
She nodded then placed a hand over mine on the counter. An embellished ring sat on one of her fingers, now tracing the backside of my palm leisurely. Her eyes stayed locked on mine even as her mouth broke out into a slow smile. As if by instinct I answered with one of my own before taking out my wallet and placing a bill on the table, enough to cover her drink and mine.
“How is it, Jung Jin-ssi…” She started, her voice curious, “that we’ve been doing this for five years and I have yet to see your apartment?”
“I’ve never seen yours, either.”
“You never asked.”
“You never offered,” I pointed out. “Besides, I respect your space too much to ask that of you.”
“Don’t be so droll, Jung Jin-ah. We both know it’s your space that you don’t want invaded,” she said, without any hint of hurt or offense, “Don’t you think I know this by now?”
I searched her eyes for any form of pretense, wondering if this arrangement had gone on for too long and if she was now getting attached, but I saw none. Her eyes stayed sharp and amused, her smile seemingly genuine. There was no other woman like Hye Soo. She understood me and my need for freedom all too well because she was exactly like me.
I stood up and shrugged back into my suit jacket before offering her a hand. There was no hesitation on her part when she took it and rose gracefully from the bar stool. We walked out of the bar’s lobby silently and headed straight to the elevator, not needing to ask each other what the plan was.
Everything was as it always was, except for one little detail that I failed to notice until it was too late. Rather than pulling away from my hand once we were in the vicinity of speculating eyes, as she had always done, Hye Soo had, instead, interlocked her fingers even more tightly with mine. I looked over at her with a slight bit of concern, but she pulled her hand away, as if just realizing what she had done and walked into the elevator.
Our eyes met across the door, she already inside and me still outside, and she lifted a brow.
“Are you coming?” She asked, her voice beckoning and sultry, the way it’s always been, the way it was the first time we did this, five years ago. We had promised each other then that as soon as this arrangement started becoming inconvenient that we would stop. And she had said nothing. There is nothing to worry about. Hye Soo is hardly the type of woman who would stay quiet if something had changed.
It was only now that I realized that I was still standing in the same place, neither answering nor making any move towards the elevator. The silence was growing between us as she held the elevator door open and I clenched my jaw before I stepped in.
UCSF Medical Center
San Francisco, California
October 23, 2001
It was a particularly busy morning on our unit, our empty beds filling up with patients, some coming from the emergency room, and others pre-assigned to their rooms after their heart surgeries. We were fully staffed, thankfully, and the huddle that I should have done at the beginning of our shift, was just being done now. All the nurses and nurses’ aides were gathered at the conference room behind the nurses’ station, two boxes of donuts on the table.
“Sorry, guys,” I said. “I know you’re all busy so I’ll make this quick. We have six empty beds still, but all of them have been assigned. Jess, you’re getting a transfer from the ED, an acute MI with an INR of 9.7, which is why he’s coming here first before going to the cath lab. They already said he’ll need about 6 units of plasma, so you’ll be a 1 to 1.” She nodded as she wrote the details down on her clipboard. “Tam, there’s a post CABG with LEVH and LIMA coming out of the OR at 1 p.m. She was an emergency case from yesterday. PACU said her pacer wires are set up, as well as her mediastinal and pleural chest tubes.”
“Who did the surgery?” She asked, looking up from her paper.
I looked at my list before I responded. “Boulton.”
“Wonderful,” she said with just a little bit of sarcasm. “He’s a great surgeon but a pain in the ass to call for orders.”
“He has a PA during the day,” I said.
The room broke out into laughs and I went down my list, letting each nurse who was getting a patient know about their diagnoses and plan. I got to the last name on my list and smiled.
“Kristy,” I said. “Teddy’s coming back into 36.”
“Teddy’s back already?” Jessica asked as she helped herself to a donut. “He’s early this year. Last year he didn’t come until November, I think. ”
“Jess, it was late October last year, too,” Chelsy piped in, leaning over the table to grab a napkin.
“He’s here for pneumonia or CHF exacerbation, maybe more a combination of the two. He’s already on BIPAP and a Nitro drip. Just so you’re all aware, we have a CATERED in service on anti- thrombolytics and anticoagulation for lunch. It’s about half an hour…”
I was interrupted by a loud knocking on the glass window, and we all turned around to see our secretary motioning for someone to let her in and Robbie, the other male nurse on our unit, opened the door.
“Gigi, there’s a delivery for you,” she said, her face excited.
“Okay,” I said, thinking that it must be the things I ordered from Central Supply.
“He needs a signature,” she continued, wiggling her eyebrows at me.
“Jenn, so sign for it,” I said, turning my attention back to my pager, which just beeped with a software down announcement from IT. “I don’t know when sterile supply started this signature business though.”
“He needs your signature,” she insisted. “He was very specific.”
I shook my head. This seemed like a bit too much fuss for some central line insertion kits and some suction equipment. “Fine… Send him in, please.”
“Are you… Are you sure?”
“Yes,” I responded, not taking my eyes from the board in front of me. I was writing down everyone’s names and their patient assignments when I heard a collective gasp and I turned around to see a flower arrangement so big I couldn’t see who was carrying them. “What the hell is that?”
The person carrying the flowers peeked out from behind them. “Gia? Nurse Gia?”
“That’s me,” I said. I haven’t received flowers in years, with the exception of… It better not be, I thought. It better not be him. I haven’t heard from him this whole month and hadn’t made any moves to contact him either. I could feel everyone’s eyes on me and fought to contain my irritation.
“Please sign here,” he said, putting the flowers down and handing me a piece of paper and pen.
The delivery person kept looking at my face, as if expecting a different reaction from the frown I had on now. I quickly scribbled my name down and waited for him to leave before turning my attention to the flowers he had set on the table.
It was like an explosion of white, my favorite flowers all in one place, tastefully arranged.
Roses the color of pure white, small world dahlias both opened and just opening, calla lilies, white tulips, all nestled by white asters and veronicas, dotted by white baby’s breath. They were all in a square shaped glass vase, a striped wired ribbon wrapped around it.
It was beautiful, and I leaned down to take a whiff, unable to help myself. I closed my eyes and a small smile formed on my face as its sweet fragrance hit my nose, and aware that people were still watching, I straightened my spine and opened my eyes. I let one of my fingers drift over a rose petal as I picked up the card tucked into the blooms.
I hope your hangover wasn’t a killer. Thinking of you.
I quickly closed the card and placed it back inside its envelope. Curious eyes were still on me and I picked up my papers again to resume what we had been doing before we were interrupted.
“So… In service at lunch. It’s only…”
“Half an hour long,” Tammy said as she sat down at the table. “We all knew that already. Aren’t you going to tell us who this is from?”
“I think we all know who it’s from,” Kristy said, a hand on her chest. “He’s certainly persistent, right?”
“The manager?” Robbie asked. “Of all the times I had to take vacation, I had to do it when we actually had a baseball player as a patient?”
“How did you know about that?” I asked him and he grinned at me.
“There are no secrets when you work with women,” he said as people started getting up and quickly walk out of the door.
I was always aware that my personal life was a hot topic of discussion amongst my co-workers, though I failed to see what the fascination was, but never more so than now. They all avoided my eyes as I watched them exit the room, sighing inwardly.
“Make sure to help each other,” I called after all of them. “Or we’ll all have a bad day.”
I looked back at the flowers, wondering what to do with them, knowing fully well that I can’t take them home with me on the bus. I’ll just keep them here for now, I thought as I closed the door behind me and almost walked into Marc Stevens.
I haven’t seen him since the wedding, which was not very unusual since we don’t typically take care of his patients. It was also a relief, considering I almost asked him out on a date.
“Hey, Dr. Stevens,” I said when he held a steadying hand to my arm.
“So we’re back to Dr. Stevens now,” he said as I placed my papers by the charge nurse computer. “I was Marc not even a month ago. Are you avoiding me?”
“Don’t be silly,” I responded as I gathered the supplies that had been delivered and started walking towards the supply room with him following closely behind. “We haven’t taken care of any of your patients.”
“I’ve been here to see you… But you were always off work or busy,” he said, waving his badge at the sensor to the door before opening it when he saw that my arms were full.
I started placing the supplies at their designated places before turning to face him. “It’s always busy here, you know that. I wasn’t avoiding you.”
And I wasn’t. Not intentionally anyway. He studied my face and I met his eyes directly. I had nothing to hide.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“You were going to ask me a question at the reception,” he said, avoiding my eyes. “What was it?”
“It was nothing,” I replied. He raised an eyebrow at me but said nothing else. “Really, it was nothing.”
I had just placed a hand on the door handle to exit out of the room when he laid his hand over mine and I turned questioning eyes his way.
“The woman I was there with…”
“She’s very beautiful, and you two looked comfortable. Happy. I’m glad for you,” I interjected, in case he thought this might have been the reason why I would avoid him.
“She’s my sister,” he said softly. “I always take her to weddings… To run off any single women. You know how it is…” His hand stayed over mine and I looked at it for a few minutes before I met his eyes. He cleared his throat before he continued. “Go out with me.”
He had asked me this before, but never this way. I perused his handsome face, and his kind eyes, allowed my eyes to travel down his mouth, given to laughing and smiling, and his hands, capable of performing miracles. My first instinct was to say no, just as I had always done, but then i remembered the promise I made myself at the wedding reception, how I told myself that it was time to change, that I needed to change.
In one instant I remembered all the lonely nights in the last five years, the silence whenever I came home. Love, I reminded myself, can grow and develop over two like minded people. It doesn’t have to happen like a burst of lightning, or an arrow to the heart. Love that happens over time is no less special than one that happens instantaneously. What were my options anyway? A man I already knew, a man I already liked, or one that I knew nothing about besides his name, one I wasn’t even entirely sure I liked and definitely didn’t trust?
It was with this in mind that I found myself nodding in agreement before exiting the room.
“Hold on,” he called out from behind me. “I don’t have your number.”
I turned around to face him, fixing a smile on my face. “I have yours. I’ll call you.”
I walked back towards the desk when he passed by me as he walked out of the unit, running a hand over my hair. He flashed me a grin so wide it made me uncomfortable, as if I was taking advantage of him. Some people may see my agreeing to a date with him as such, if they knew why I was going out with him, but there are more ridiculous reasons that others have used to be with their partners than that. It’s not as if I’m after his money.
Wanting companionship and affection was not a bad basis for any kind of relationship. Neither was a desire for stability. That’s what I need, and he can give me that.
“She did what?” I asked, convinced that I heard the voice on the other end of the line incorrectly. “She gave the flowers to a patient?”
“Mr. Lee,” Jennifer, the secretary I had spoken to when I had tried to ask for Gia’s number previously, said. “If it makes you feel better, she didn’t just give it to any patient, she gave it to Teddy. He’s a special…”
“Teddy?” I asked, trying to keep the irritation out of my voice. First there’s a Joon, now there’s a Teddy. What next?
“He’s one of our regulars,” she explained. “She said she can’t take it on the bus.”
“Is there something wrong with her car?”
“It’s not that,” she responded, a little discomfort in her voice.
“Does she not drive?”
“She does, but…” It sounded as if she was about to explain when she quickly said, her voice in a whisper. “She’s coming out of the conference room, I have to go.”
“But… At least tell me if she’s working tomorrow.”
There was a moment’s hesitation before she answered. “No, she’s not. Thank you for calling, sir. Have a good day.”
The phone clicked and I stared at it in frustration. Stubborn, obstinate, hard-headed woman. Ungrateful woman. Who does things like this? I’m used to calls of appreciation, a show of shyness, maybe a bit of flirting after getting flowers like that… Especially since we’re not exactly strangers anymore. I already knew a few of her secrets.
I spun my office chair around so that I faced the view in my San Francisco apartment, Mission Bay gleaming in the dark. One of my purchases from a couple of years back when Joon was first signed by the Giants, it was a modern space with large bay windows and hardwood floors. I had decorated the place with leather couches and solid wood furniture. An apothecary style coffee table made from dark mahogany wood, lamps with steel bases. The light fixtures were refined and elegant, all the appliances state of the art. My bedroom had a king sized platform bed, devoid of frills but for the 280 thread count single ply Egyptian cotton sheets I preferred. My bathroom had a full sized tub and a shower made of black marble, full body jet sprays positioned perfectly apart.
I liked my home like how I liked my women. Straightforward, simple, easy on eyes, and fully representative of the finer things in life.
I started eating the pasta I made earlier, pouring myself a glass of wine from the bottle next to it. I broke off a chunk from the bread I made to accompany the lobster risotto before dunking it not very gracefully on a small bowl with extra virgin olive oil and garlic.
It may be time to move onto Phase II of this getting to know this Gia person. For a second I briefly wondered why I was even doing this… Flying back and forth from Seoul, and sending flowers to her job. I examined what it was about her that fascinated me so, when I realized that it was precisely because I knew so little that I was so single minded in my pursuit. And what little I did know were so contradictory that I struggled to wrap my mind around it. The desire to know what she thought she knew of me, the challenge to change her mind… They were what drove me.
Exactly how far i will allow this… Mystery to push me, I wasn’t sure yet. But I’ve never been one to give up when there were still so many questions I needed answered. I got the impression that she was a person used to having control at all times, but so was I. I will stay focused and tenacious until I could get some answers, or until she gives in first.
Or, at the very least, until something better came along.
November 8, 2001
I parked my car on Zoe Street before walking the short distance to Bryant and turning onto Ritch Street, pulling my cap low on my face and the hood of my sweatshirt over my head. I glanced at my watch as I walked down Gia’s street, wondering if today I will actually speak to her. I had planned on doing so two weeks ago, the first time I followed her jogging. I was already out and about when I saw her come out of her loft, and she had seemed so unaware of my presence that I just ended up following her as she jogged up and down the San Francisco streets.
Jesus, I sound like a stalker. I acknowledged this even as I cringed at myself.
I quickly hid behind the building next to hers as she exited her house, wearing leggings that ended at her knees and a loose shirt bearing a college name. Her hair was piled on top of her head, earphones already on. I watched as she scrolled down her mp3 player before securing it on her arm.
I copied her stretching moves and let her start walking before I discreetly followed. She didn’t look back, not once, she was so focused on what was ahead. After a couple of blocks she started jogging at a faster speed and I continued along, suddenly wishing that I had some music, too.
I followed the route that she took, aware now that in a few minutes she will make the turn into Mission Creek Park, just as she had started to do a couple of days after I began jogging with her. Not that she knew, of course. I’ve texted her a few times, as well, to no response and much to my annoyance.
I had been staying busy the last couple of weeks, flying to New York City and meeting up with a few of my old friends from university, speaking to a couple of baseball teams. I spoke to Joon every day, always about everything else besides baseball, since he seemed to want to speak about everything else but that. Na Jeong had kept me abreast of what was actually going on with Joon and his shoulder, and she had said that though he hadn’t started throwing yet, he had started working out. She was cautious yet hopeful, and the lightness in her voice told me that whether or not Joon played baseball again, that they would be fine. Not that I ever had any doubts about it. What they shared now was unlike anything I’d ever seen. Devoted to each other and their relationship, what they had was the stuff of dreams.
We had just reached the park when I saw Gia pass an elderly woman walking in measured steps towards a bench. I watched as she slowed down and slowed myself down as well, wondering why she was breaking her usual routine. She stopped and spoke to the woman, her hand gesturing towards the bench, before she placed one of the lady’s hands on her arm and led her there, speaking animatedly the whole time. I was close enough to them that I could see her face clearly, and was struck by the way she spoke to the woman, her smile open and generous.
Something squeezed in my chest as she sat down with the woman, then laughed at something her new companion said. Her laugh was joyful, uninhibited. It made me want to laugh, too, made me want to know what brought on the sound. She stayed with her for a few minutes before standing up and I automatically assumed that she would resume her jog. Instead she dropped down on her knees in front of the woman and re-tied the old lady’s shoelaces before standing up again. My heart tightened and clenched even as I saw her bidding the lady goodbye with a wave.
I stared at her back, progressively getting farther from me as I passed the bench where the old lady still sat, debating whether I should follow her or stop this craziness now, wondering whether I’d completely lost my mind.
“Young man,” I heard a voice call out and I turned to see the old lady motioning for me to come closer. I walked towards her and she smiled. “Can you pick up my handkerchief? I just dropped it.”
“Of course,” I said, bending down to retrieve it and wiping it with my hands before handing it over to her. She smiled back in gratitude before pulling a book out of her bag.
“Thank you,” she said. “I hate asking people for help but my back will give out if I bent down.”
“It was no problem,” I said as I pulled my hood off my head and my cap and sat down next to her. “That woman… That woman who just helped you. Do you know her?” At her questioning gaze, I added, “You seemed friendly.”
“It’s the first time we met,” she said. “She’s a nice lady.”
“She’s a nurse.”
“Ah… Maybe that’s why,” she said, nodding her head. “Whatever she is… They don’t make young people like that anymore. You know her?”
I nodded without saying a word. Kind of. Sort of. But how was it that the more I thought I knew about her the less I actually understood?
“What did you tell her?” I asked hesitantly. “You told her something that made her laugh. I’ve never heard her laugh like that.”
She looked at me before she spoke. “My husband and I used to come here before he passed away, long before all this stuff was here,” she said, gesturing over the tiled pathway just up ahead and the glass building behind it. “I told her something he used to say. Do you want to hear it?”
I nodded and leaned my back on the bench, surprising even myself. The old lady turned to me, and eyes twinkling she said, “Old age is horrible. You wake up.”
She stopped speaking and I urged her to continue. “And then?”
“And that’s it!” She finished and unwittingly I began to laugh, the sound of it so alien even to my ears. The old woman continued to look at me with a smile even as my laughter died off.
“That’s good,” I said. “That’s really good. Your husband sounds like he was a funny man.”
“He was funny,” she said, her smile replaced by a look of melancholy. “We were together for sixty years before he died. We didn’t have any children, so it’s just me now. He was a good man.” She paused then met my eyes, a sharp assessing look. “Are you a good man?”
I thought on her question before I replied. “No,” I said honestly. “I don’t think I am.”
“Ahh, a conflicted man.” At my questioning look, she narrowed her eyes. “A not so good man will never admit that he’s not.” She looked away from me before she spoke.”There’s always time to change. Remember this, young man. It’s never too late.” She turned back to face me and held out a hand. “I’m Gertrude, by the way. You can call me Gertie.”
I took her hand before replying. “I’m Jung Jin. It’s nice to meet you.”
“And you. Today’s the first time since my husband died that I feel like I’m still here.”
“Here, in this world… Part of it, living in it. Noticed, accounted for. Here.”
“Ah.” I nodded my head. “How long has it been?”
“Two months today,” she replied with a sad smile. “My eyesight isn’t as good as it used to be, so he used to read this to me whenever we came here.” She lifted the book in her hands to show it to me. Pablo Nerudo. One of my favorites as well. She placed it back on her lap before raising her face to the sun and closing her eyes. “Isn’t it a beautiful day?”
I looked up at the sky, noting its blueness and the clouds, puffy and light. There was a gentle breeze in the air and the strong scent of hotdogs from one of the food carts in the park. In the distance, Pacific Bell Park loomed across the heavens. I closed my eyes and heard children laughing from the playground nearby, the sound of birds chirping. I opened them again and turned to my head to the side, where Gertie kept her face lifted. I marveled at the fact that despite her loss she was still able to see the beauty in life. People are sometimes, amazingly, resilient.
“Yeah, it is,” I agreed, eliciting a small smile from her. “It’s a beautiful day. Do you want some coffee?”
I had circled around the park, continuing my jog after I left Gertie on the bench and stopping only to take a drink from the water fountain, when I started worrying that she didn’t have anything to drink. I made my way to the vending machine and after buying her a bottled water, I came back towards the spot where I was sure I’d left her when I saw that someone had already joined her, and they both had faces to the sky, eyes closed.
I walked closer until I could see their faces clearly before I hid behind a tree. Upon closer inspection I realized who it was. He had a face not easily forgotten, though he was dressed a bit more casually than I remembered. He had a cap on his hand, the hood of his sweatshirt bunched on his back.
I hadn’t even realized that he was back. I had assumed when he and JJ left for Seoul that he would be gone for good.
What is he doing here?
Not here in San Francisco, but here in my park. For a brief second I considered that he may have followed me before I banished the thought.
That’s a bit vain. What person does that? He didn’t seem like a stalker… besides, I was behaving more like the crazy person hiding behind this tree. It would not be unusual that he would live close to Pacific Bell Park; it was their workplace after all.
I thought about just casually walking over and saying hello when I remembered that I have yet to remember what I said when I called him that night, nor have I thanked him for the flowers I ended up giving away, and decided against it. I’ll just go see her after he leaves. I nodded to myself as I crouched down and planned to wait it out.
I watched as Jung Jin lowered his face and looked at Gertie, a small smile playing on the corner of his mouth. He said something to her and she looked at him, her face beaming, and I wondered if he had even met her before. They looked so comfortable sitting on the bench together, speaking as if they were old friends. Gertie had looked so sad when I first laid eyes on her today that my heart softened, and then softened even more when she told me that she had just lost her husband not too long ago.
She had a smile on her face like that of a young woman on her very first date. I suppose the man was good for that. No matter how old they are, women never stop responding to the attention of a man. He didn’t even have to be good looking, I thought, as I remembered how I had walked into a 97 year old patient’s room only to catcher her putting her hair in rollers and putting makeup on to get ready for the “nice young doctor who listens to her heart”. Never mind that it was only 4 a.m. Or that she hadn’t had a shower in days. Or that the nice young physician she was talking about was about fifty five years old, had a balding head and a not so fresh breath. I smiled as I thought back on the memory before looking at the pair on the bench again.
Jung Jin laughed at something Gertie said, his dark head thrown back, the sound rich and full against her light and giggly laugh. His good looks had made me suspicious when we first met, the confidence and arrogance he carried himself with only confirming those suspicions, but his laugh…
His laugh made me curious. His laughter was unguarded, contagious. It wrapped over me and made me want to laugh, too. It’s only the second time I’ve seen him and it felt like I was seeing a different man altogether. The expression on his face was relaxed, with nary a worry coming off of him but that expression belied the intelligence in his eyes, which continued to study his surroundings and the woman who sat next to him.
Oblivious that he had an audience, he stood up and said something to Gertie, put his cap back on before he jogged away, his strides long and leisurely. Realizing that this may be my chance and wanting to get the hell out of the park as quickly as possible, seeing as all this physical activity had obviously affected my senses, I stood up as well, ready to deliver the bottled water and rush home. I was just about to walk over when I saw him coming back, a couple of cups of coffee in his hands. I shook my head and hid back behind the tree, wondering what he was doing.
Why isn’t he leaving?
I frowned at him over the distance. He must have felt the bad vibes being sent his way and looked around, making me crouch down quickly. Fully aware that this situation was just becoming stranger and stranger by the minute I made up my mind to just leave when I looked back behind me and saw him take a book out of Gertie’s hands and open it. Though I can’t hear the words, I saw her face soften as she smiled. He continued in this way as I watched him, my mind taken aback. Maybe there was more to the man than I initially thought… Maybe I was wrong.
The sight of this different side to him left me a little confused, a little worried. The last thing I needed was a reminder of my fleeting interest. I didn’t need to be changing my impression of him. He must have a hidden intent… Most people do. I was better off believing he was nothing more than just a pretty face.
With that in mind I stood up and wiped the leaves from my pants and made my way out of the park, the earphones back in my ears. With the sound of Shirley Murdock singing woefully in my ears, I took the long way home.
Twenty Five Lusk
November 22, 2001
“How long has it been?” I asked Shawn, who was sitting across the table from me. My friend took a gulp of beer before meeting my eyes.
“It’s been six years, at least…” Shawn’s gaze traveled around the bar slowly. “How did you find this place?”
“I found it last year, when my client first came to San Francisco.” I let my eyes wander around the dining room of the restaurant I’ve picked out as soon as I realized my friend from uni and I were in the same neck of the woods.
Housed in a historic building from 1917, the restaurant featured massive windows, exposed brick, slate tiles and smoked mirrors. There were suspended fireplaces, tropical wood veneers, glassed in kitchen, and a chef’s table as well. The bar was downstairs, located in the basement and was filled with the local happy hour crowd. The ambience was low key and relaxed, though the food was anything but.
I ordered my main of verbena steamed halibut, see beans, tomato, eggplant, and lemon-lobster vinaigrette then listened as Shawn ordered just an appetizer. We handed our menus to the server as she delivered our drinks, whiskey for me and a mojito for Shawn.
“What are you doing in San Francisco?” I asked.
“You know that San Francisco is my second home.”
“You mean along with your other homes?” My old friend answered me with a grin. “Are you not hungry?” I asked. “You only ordered an appetizer.”
“Have you forgotten? It’s Thanksgiving day here,” Shawn responded with a shake of the head. “I have dinner plans already.”
“With family?” I asked, breaking a piece of acme bread, soft and still warm, and buttering it generously.
“You can say that.” Shawn took a bite of the amuse bouche that the chef had sent over, eyes closing in appreciation. “What brings you to San Francisco? I thought you said your client was in rehab.”
I took a few minutes before I responded, waiting until the server had put down the starter I had ordered, a dish of cauliflower crème brûlée, sunchoke escabeche and truffled wild arugula. I spooned a bite into my mouth and was still trying to make up my mind whether I liked the sweet and savory combination when I heard the sound of throat clearing, only to lift my eyes and see Shawn looking at me, eyebrows raised in question.
“He is in rehab, will be in the immediate future. It will be a while yet before he plays again,” I said, remembering Na Jeong’s recent update. Joon had just started throwing a few days ago, but at least he was throwing again.
“Are you ever going to tell me his name?”
“No… My livelihood depends on complete privacy,” I said lightly. “Just like yours.”
Shawn was the head of a multi-million dollar business, one that I had wisely invested in years ago. My parents had thought it rash that I invested most of what my paternal grandfather left me when he died, a sum just a little shy of a million dollars, in one place, but I believed in my friend’s abilities and had known that the business would be a success. That investment had since then quintupled in value and had allowed me the security and luxury of being able to live my life the way I wanted. It was the reason why, even now, even without a job, I didn’t need to worry.
I met Shawn in my first year of graduate studies, before I had gone to Columbia. The only other Asian person in our business class, we gravitated to each other almost immediately and our friendship had stayed consistent over the last eleven years. Though we texted occasionally and called even less frequently, we exchanged emails every few days. It has, however, been six years since we actually shared the same space and I was happy for this opportunity.
Coldly assessing, methodical to a fault, there was no one else better at numbers besides myself. Shawn and I both approached business in an almost identical fashion, though our approaches in relationships were not quite so similar.
“You still haven’t answered my question.” The observation, delivered flatly, made me smile. “And it looks like you don’t want to. Must be a woman, then.”
“What makes you think that?” I asked, mildly offended. “I could be here on business…”
“But you’re not.”
“I could be here on vacation…”
“But you’re not.” Shawn took a sip of the drink the server brought while raising an eyebrow at me.
“You got me,” I admitted sheepishly. “There is this woman…”
The server came back with the rest of our food before there were any more opportunities to ask questions and evade answers. We ate in silence for a while before I felt my friend’s eyes studying me.
“What’s the matter?” I asked, my fork suspended mid-air. “Something wrong with your food?”
Shawn stopped eating the diver scallops long enough to put the linen napkin and the silver flatware down. “You look really different from the way you looked before. Better.” I sent a grin across the table at the compliment, knowing damn well it was not my friend’s way to comment on such things. “I hope your taste had gotten better since uni, too.” The remark was said without any judgment. “That girl…” The sentence was finished with a shake of the head and I chuckled.
“You and my family both… I wish someone had told me this shit before I bought that ring,” I complained, wincing at the memory of the extravagant ring I threw into the trash.
“We did,” Shawn retorted. “As if you ever listened anyway.”
The smile stayed on my face even as my mind wandered back to the day of my proposal, my almost fiancée’s face drifting across my mind like a forgotten memory. Kelsey. Tall, beautiful, intelligent… She was a dream come true. Or at least she had been my dream come true for a while.
I met her not long after I met Shawn, in the same university. She was a year younger than me, but she had somehow seemed older, worldlier. She was graceful and regal, coolly composed, politeness at its finest. She never lost her temper and we never fought. Her family was rich and her parents disapproved of me, took an instant dislike as soon as they met me. It seemed that though she had been my dream come true, I was not quite who they had in mind for her. That they flatly refused me made me more attractive to her, I supposed, since we ended up being together for six years.
We had made it through my having to go back to Korea after I finished my graduate studies, though I had noticed that it had gotten significantly more difficult to get in touch with her. She had started asking me about what my plans were for my future, how I was going to make my living. She had made it clear to me that she wanted to get married, and I had been ready to give her whatever she wanted so that she would stay with me. I was a different man then… A better man. But I was also naive.
I hadn’t realized how naive I had been until the blunder that resulted from it was looking me in the eyes, with a smack on the head for good measure. It’s amazing what you can make yourself believe when you love someone enough.
In one moment I remembered all the times she casually mentioned the professor she started working with a year into our relationship. I remembered all of our dates, canceled last minute, the flowers that would appear in her dorm room, then her apartment, always without a card. She always had a logical explanation whenever I asked, so much so that I could recite it word for word. It wasn’t long until I stopped asking and she stopped explaining altogether. Some truths were better left unsaid, and I wasn’t ready to face it anyhow. I don’t think I would have ever been ready to face it, not until it was staring me right in the face.
Six years. Six fucking years. All down the drain, in one fell swoop.
I clenched my jaw as the bitter taste of betrayal hit my tongue, though I supposed I should be thankful that I found out when I did. That the memory still elicited a reaction out of me reiterated a fact I only knew too well, one that I wished I could erase with everything I am and everything I had.
I had loved her.
She turned out to be a conniving, manipulative, selfish bitch, the opposite of who I thought she was, and I had loved her.
I had loved her with the innocence of one who’s never loved before, with the hope of one who still believed in dreams. I used to be a good man. A simple man. I didn’t have any thoughts then of making a lot of money, of gaining prestige. I only ever just wanted a simple life, doing a job that I loved, with the woman I loved by my side, maybe a couple of children. Her betrayal changed that. In fact, it changed everything. There is a pivotal point in a person’s life where drastic change happens; that and the time that followed had been mine.
Like the lotus flower who had to stay in mud before it became what it was, the same way a piece of rock had to be refined before it became a diamond, I was transformed into someone valuable, someone worth keeping. The only difference being that I no longer wanted to be kept, and my value was not determined by other people anymore, either. I should thank her for it. What she did forced me to change the way I looked at the world, the way I looked at myself. I should be grateful. She actually did me a favor by breaking my heart.
“Penny for your thoughts,” I heard Shawn say, the words breaking through my mental trip down memory lane. It was another reason why I was never in any rush to meet with people from my past. It inevitably brings up these memories and I would rather that I never had to think about them again. “Eat up. I have to go soon.”
I looked at the plate across from mine and saw that it was almost empty. I tucked into my fish and ate quietly even as my friend continued to watch me in blessed silence.
“So,” Shawn started. “The woman… Are you going to tell me about her?”
My friend had never before asked me about the women I’ve seen since Kelsey, and I was surprised at the genuine curiosity I detected in the question.
“There’s nothing to tell, yet,” I said as I speared a few beans onto my fork and lifted it to my mouth. “She’s not very receptive to my advances.”
The last time I saw her was at the park a couple of weeks ago, where I had ended up spending a couple of hours with Gertie after she disappeared, reading to her just like her husband used to do. While walking back to the car on my own afterwards I recognized the insanity of what I was doing and made a resolution not to follow her again. I felt no closer to getting a date out of her than I did before I started doing it, had found out nothing else about her except she liked to run on the rare occasion that she wasn’t working.
“I hope you’ve gotten a bit better at your wooing skills since college,” Shawn said before chuckling. “You were such a dork then. What are you going to do now?”
“I have to go back to Korea the second week of December,” I replied. “But I promised my sister I’d visit her and her family in Taiwan before I go home. So I’m flying back to Asia in a week.”
“I meant what are you going to do about the woman who is evading your grasp.”
“Ahh,” I said before finishing my drink. “Not sure yet… I have to rethink my strategy. Why?”
“Just asking,” Shawn replied before grabbing the jacket sitting on the empty chair and shrugging into it. “I have to go.” Pulling a pen out of the jacket and a piece of paper, I watched as a name and number was jotted down then the paper handed to me.
“A little help… That’s the best chocolate money can buy in the planet and how you can get it. My girlfriend has impeccable taste and she swears by that stuff.”
I nodded before placing it my pocket. Shawn stood up and offered an embrace, which I took willingly.
“I’ll email you next week,” I said as Shawn pulled away then nodded in response.
“Have a safe flight.”
With that I watched as my friend walked away, then sat back down and ordered another drink. I pulled out the piece of paper I was given before making a mental note to call and place an order before I leave. Flowers didn’t do anything but chocolate might. Maybe the adage of making the way to one’s heart through their stomach applied to women, as well. Besides, who can refuse chocolate?
UCSF Medical Center
November 23, 2001
“What are you doing here today?” David, my manager and my former colleague, asked as I walked into the unit. “I thought you’d be out shopping, with it being Black Friday and all.”
“I’m going this afternoon with my best friend, ” I responded, smiling. We were supposed to start this morning, but Junnie, beset by jet lag, pushed me away when I tried to wake her up this morning. It’s just as well. I had something I wanted to do anyway. “I came to deliver something.”
David looked at what I held in my hands and started laughing. “You do realize Teddy is on a cardiac diet, right? And somehow, I suspect whatever is under that foil wrap does not follow those guidelines.”
“He has end stage heart failure and he’s about to spend the holidays in the hospital for the fourth year in a row. Cut the guy some slack,” I said. “Besides, it’s only some turkey and stuffing.” And mashed potatoes and green beans. And pumpkin pie. At least I didn’t put some of the candied yams with it.
“Wow,” David said, his eyes widening in surprise as he tried to look under the foil and I waved his hand away. “I didn’t realize you cooked.”
“I don’t,” I said but didn’t elaborate.
Junnie had already started our Thanksgiving feast before I even got home from work last night. By the time I arrived back at her loft, the pie was already cooling on the side and all I was left to do was mash potatoes and boil some water for the vegetables. And even then I was lectured for not mashing the potatoes enough, causing it to be one lumpy mess. Even so it was the first complete meal I had since the last time Junnie visited, and I was happy to spend Thanksgiving with her. It was something to be grateful for, indeed, especially since I’ve made the decision not to celebrate the holidays back home with my family for the third year in a row.
David shook his head at me before going back to his office and I walked to Teddy’s room. I had been in charge every time I had worked since he was admitted therefore I hadn’t had a chance to spend any time with him. I planned on rectifying that today.
I knocked on the door before opening it, only to find Teddy sitting on the bed, his spectacles on, doing a crossword puzzle. He smiled widely when he saw me, his dentureless mouth breaking into a gummy grin, his eyes crinkling at their corners, and something inside me softened, the way it always did with my elderly patients, especially for this particular one.
All of my grandparents died before I was an adult, and it’s only recently that I realized what a loss that had been. Maybe if they had been around longer, my sister and I might have had a semblance of stability. Maybe things would have been different… I don’t know for sure. But my grandparents’ absence made me even more fond of the older folks I took care of, as if in taking care of them, I was able to fill that gaping hole in my life.
“There’s my favorite nurse!” He exclaimed and I walked over to his bed. I pulled his table across his lap as he adjusted the nasal cannula over his ears. I deposited the plate on the table before sitting myself down on the chair closest to him. “Don’t tell the others I said that.”
“You probably tell all of them they’re your favorite anyway,” I said. “Besides, I’m not here as your nurse today. I’m here as your visitor.”
I first met Teddy, known to others as Theodore Reginald Feldman, five years ago, when I first started working here. He had come in with a heart attack and ended up having heart surgery. He had been out for his daily breakfast meal, he said, eating his biscuit and sausage gravy (with a side of bacon!) just as he had for at least six decades, when he felt the pain in his chest and had a cardiac arrest on the chair, just like that. It took the EMS two tries to bring him back, but a quadruple bypass surgery later and a couple of months in cardiac rehab, and he was back at home.
Born in the midst of World War I with his immigrant father deployed in the Marines, he followed in his footsteps when World War II broke out, leaving his wife and two young children behind. He had been in Normandy on D-day, earning him several medals and rank promotions. He loved the military life so much he decided to stay in it for the post war years and then fought again in the front lines during the Korean War, and for three years during the Vietnam War before a gunshot to the leg ended his military career. He spent the next twenty or so years as a professor at West Point before retiring.
I have heard endless stories of his military exploits and his teaching experience, and though I knew they were a part of his personal history, it’s difficult to reconcile those facts to the balding man sitting on the bed, wearing a hospital gown with pajama bottoms. He looked more frail now than he did when I first met him. I noted a very slight tremor in his hands, barely discernable, as he unwrapped the paper plate, a plastic set of utensils already inside.
“Homemade?” He asked and dug in with gusto, though I suspected it was more for show than anything else. His appetite hadn’t been good in years. He lifted his intelligent eyes to me before he spoke. “Your best friend must be in town.”
I laughed at his comment as I realized that he knew me now almost as well as I knew him. In a world that I had filled with temporary things, Teddy remained a constant in my life.
“You know too much about me,” I said as I poured some water from his pitcher into a styrofoam cup and setting it next to the plate. “We’re going shopping later.”
“I thought you were dressed a little too nicely just to visit me,” he commented. “I’m surprised you actually took a day off from work.”
“Don’t you start on me, too,” I said testily, earning a chuckle.
“You’re so feisty,” he said. “If I was fifty years younger, I would definitely have asked you out. You’re just my type.”
I laughed at the familiar thread of conversation. “If you were fifty years younger you’d be a heartbreaker,” I quipped. “Besides, you got married at twenty two years old. Fifty years ago you would have been too in love with your wife to notice anyone else.”
“My Marie was something else,” he said. His eyes held a distant look for a minute and I shut my mouth. He lost his wife almost twenty years ago and I don’t think he ever recovered.
“Have you spoken to your children today?” I asked carefully. He had been estranged to his children for as long as I’ve known him, and they had all moved away once their mother had passed. This was not information he had willingly shared, had only divulged it when I came into his room two years ago and caught him crying silently. To make him feel better I told him a bit about myself, and I think I might have shared more than I had intended, or more than what was appropriate.
“I called them earlier,” he said softly, picking at the pumpkin pie. “They’re all together at my daughter’s. Hey… I’m a great grandfather twice over now!”
I recognized the changing of topics, having employed that same technique many times before myself, as well as the forced glee in his voice. I took the hint and stood up before wrapping an arm around his shoulder. “That’s great news!” I said sincerely. “Congratulations!”
He smiled at me before he finished the rest of his plate as if knowing I’d be watching, and turned the television to MASH, his favorite program. I sat back down and watched the show for a few minutes before excusing myself when my phone rang.
“Where are you?” Junnie asked. “I thought we were going shopping.”
“We are. I just dropped a plate off for Teddy.”
“I’m leaving the house now. I’m coming to get you.”
“That makes no sense,” I said. “The mall is the opposite way, and you’ll be caught in the traffic. You just go ahead and I’ll take the bus and meet you there.”
“I still don’t understand why you won’t get a car,” Junnie grumbled and I heard the telltale start of an ignition.
I didn’t say anything though I knew why. A car meant maintenance, insurance… Commitment. One more thing to tie me down to a single place. I haven’t had a car in five years and I was not about to start now.
“I’ll see you soon,” I said and hung up the call.
I walked back towards Teddy’s door and opened it. Teddy had already fallen asleep, his crossword puzzle back on his lap. Quietly I took the plate from his table and threw it out before placing the table back to the side of the bed. I turned the volume down on the television and closed some of the blinds. I took off his glasses and placed them on the table before tucking his covers more tightly around him.
Content that everything was as it should, I collected my purse and rooted around it for the new crossword book I had picked up at the gift shop and placed it on his table. With one last look at my patient and someone I considered a friend, I turned off the overhead lights and left the room.
Kona Beans Cafe
December 7, 2000
I walked into the cafe to see Na Jeong already sitting at a table, staring at a cup of coffee, her hands under the table. Her long hair was pulled away from her face in a ponytail behind her, still dressed in her work clothes.
I hadn’t planned on coming back to Korea for a few more days when I received a text message from her a couple of days ago while I was in Taiwan with my eldest Noona and her family. She had asked for a meeting and it had sounded urgent so I took a flight back yesterday. I wondered now what this was about, a Iittle concerned that something else might have happened with Joon. She lifted her face and met my eyes as I made my way to the table and stood up.
“Jin-ie Oppa,” she said as she wrapped her slim arms around me. “Thanks for meeting with me.”
“Sure thing,” I said. I sat down and motioned the server for a cup of coffee before leaning back into his seat.
“Things going well with your lady?” she asked.
I had already forgotten that I told Joon about Gia, perhaps giving off the impression that I was actually much further with her than I actually was. My lack of progress hadn’t detracted me, and I still believed that she would give in… At one point or another. My thoughts brought a smile to my face and I was unable to stop.
“Yeah, it’s good,” I lied. “Really good. She’s amazing.” Yeah, amazingly stubborn, I wanted to add, but didn’t. I looked at her closely. “What’s up?”
The server brought the coffee I ordered and I said my thanks. I had only just finished stirring some sugar into it when I saw Na Jeong pull a notebook out of her purse. Before I could ask her again what was going on, she laid the notebook on the table and slid it over to me. “What’s this?”
“I bought a speedometer,” she said. “That’s the log I’ve been keeping of Joon’s pitching speeds starting from a few weeks ago.”
“Yeah, Joon mentioned that he’s pitching again,” I said casually and opened the notebook. I looked down at the numbers, unimpressed at first, but narrowed my eyes when I saw that the numbers had gotten progressively higher as the days went on. The numbers posted the last few days were almost comparative to his pre-injury statistics, some better, even.
She cleared her throat before I heard her voice again. “Yonsei and Korea University are having a friendly charity game on the 22nd,” she began. “Joon’s going to be pitching. I… Uhmm… I wondered if you can make a few phone calls. I know you’re not his manager anymore and I would do it myself, but…”
I realized what she was getting at as soon as she mentioned the game. And though officially I may not be Joon’s manager anymore, I am still his manager. As long as Kim Jae Joon is playing baseball, I will always be his manager.
“I’ll do it,” I said definitively. “I know there are scouts still wanting to find out if he’s received any kind of treatment.” I continued looking at the notebook even as I realized that she came here on her own, and not with him. Suspicion arose as I watched her nervously wringing her hands, her fingers on a charm hanging from her purse. “Does Joon know you’re here?”
She shook her head no and I inwardly sighed. Just as I suspected. “I don’t want him feeling pressured,” she said softly. “I would rather he not know they’re there when he plays either.”
“Na Jeong-ah…” I said, trying to figure out a way to say what I was about to say and not wanting to hurt her feelings. Her eyes met mine questioningly. “It probably doesn’t need to be said but I will say it anyway.” There was a slight hesitation to my voice before I continued. “You realize that if Joon gets scouted abroad, he will more than likely go back, right? You know him. His pride won’t let him make the kind of exit he made with the injury. He’ll feel like he has something to prove.”
“Yes,” she responded, nodding her head. “I know that.”
“But… You could have just kept this to yourself and had it all finally. Without as many options he would stay and you two can get your lives started,” I continued, a little confused. “I thought you wanted him in Korea?”
“I want Joon happy,” Na Jeong stated, her eyes meeting mine directly. The tone in her voice was impassioned, the expression in her eyes the same way as well. It reminded me of the way Gia spoke to me before Joon left the hospital in San Francisco. “That’s what I want. If it means that he has to go back there and settle some unfinished business, whether it be for pride or redemption or whatever else, then so be it.” She paused for a few beats. “The last few months have taught me that Joon and I… We can get through anything. Regardless of wherever he is, we will be together. Whether now or later, we will have our future. So if that’s what he has to do, then I am behind him 100 percent.”
I looked at her silently for a few minutes over my cup, perhaps realizing just now how incredible of a person Joon must really be to inspire such loyalty and devotion from the people who meet him.
“I will do as you asked,” I finally said when I realized that Na Jeong was still waiting for a response.
She smiled at me and I smiled back at her. “Thank you.” She finished her drink and put her coat back on. “I have to go. My hot man is waiting for me at home.”
“How does it feel to be the main breadwinner?” I asked jokingly and she chuckled. “Your relationship is now ruled by an alpha female.”
“As if,” she scoffed. She took some money out of her wallet and placed it on the table before I could stop her. “Our relationship is ruled by two alphas compromising and sacrificing together and for each other. He can never secede to anyone, not even me.”
“You’d be surprised,” I said. “Joon will let you do just about anything, including rule him.”
“I love the man too much to ever put him in a position where he might feel he would have to do that just to be with me,” she said. “What you said just now told me how long it’s been since you saw him last. Kim Jae Joon now is a lot more confident than he was years ago, maybe even months ago. You’ll see when you see him again.”
I stood up as soon as she left, leaving money for my coffee on the table before I went back to the parking lot. As I walked I found myself marveling at how far the two of them had come. It’s almost inconceivable that they’d only been together for a little over a year. Joon had said from the beginning that for him, it’s Na Jeong and that had never changed over the years, much to my surprise and annoyance.
But for the first time since I’ve known Joon, I think I finally realized why he couldn’t let Na Jeong go, even as he tried his damnedest. It was because of this. When Sung Na Jeong loved, it truly was through the good and the bad.
Not for the first time in the last few months I wished I was a different man, one who deserved that kind of love as well. Alas, I was not, was no longer, hadn’t been in years. It so rarely bothered me nowadays that I might never find that kind of love, hadn’t even realized that part of me still wanted it. Until today.
My phone beeped with a message as I was about to open the car door and I looked down and read it.
Park Hyatt. Presidential Suite. 11:00 p.m.
My fingers were tempted to type no, a small part of me begging to refuse, as if worried that everything I had been doing in the last five years had done nothing more than take me further away from who I really was.
But then again, who was I?
I asked the question of Joon before, fully content with what I knew the answer was had that same question been directed my way. But now… I shook the uneasiness off as I sat down in the car. It’s just one of those days, I told myself. This, too, will pass. Experience taught me that just like the good times never last, neither do the bad. Emotions were volatile that way, and why they can never be trusted.
I opened my phone and quickly typed my response. I wasn’t excited about it, but it was a habit now… It may not be healthy, and it may not make me happy, but it was one that I was comfortable with.
I’ll be there.
Park Hyatt Hotel
“What’s the matter?” Hye Soo asked, her tone curious and just a little irritated. “Did you drink before you came?”
“No, not really.” I did, but it was only a glass of wine… Not enough to affect me physically. Not like this. This has never happened before. I was just as confused as she was.
“No worries,” she said, trying to keep her voice bright. “We can just try again.”
She pressed a kiss to my mouth and I forced myself to reciprocate, though I can honestly say I didn’t feel like it. Her perfume smelled heavy and overwhelming, suffocating. I tried to close my eyes and focus on what she was doing with her hands and her mouth, attempting to persuade my body to respond.
“Does this feel good?” She whispered as her lips wrapped around one of my nipples, something I quite enjoyed every other time. But not today. Hye Soo had no such realization that I was not enjoying what we were doing and took my silence as encouragement. She climbed over my lap, still fully unclothed and I felt myself tense up.
A flash of memory.
Kelsey and her married professor having sex on the bed I bought for her, on the day I was going to propose, in the apartment I still paid for, after I had made my decision to leave everything and everyone I loved behind for her. Though her face remained hazy in my mind, the details I once loved intentionally blurred out, that memory was as vivid to me as the night it happened. The smell of coconut and lavender ingrained in my nostrils.
She had been on top of him, her long slender back to me, her dark hair loose on her back, like I’ve only rarely seen. She moved with an abandon with him that she never did with me. The sight of the necklace I had bought for her in the mirror facing the bed was a detail I can’t forget, nor the defiance in her eyes when they met mine in the mirror’s reflection. That she just ripped my world apart didn’t matter and I finally got it. The person I thought I knew never existed. Neither did the person I loved.
The memory was gone almost as quickly as it appeared but the lingering taste of bitterness persisted. Whereas I would have, could have and might have just eased Hye Soo off me and positioned myself on top of her any other time, I couldn’t even bring myself to do that.
“I don’t do it like that,” I said, my voice hoarse. This situation has thrown me off balance and I was trying to figure out why. “For five years I’ve never done it like that. You know this.”
Then to even my surprise, I found myself easing her weight off me and sitting on the side of the bed, beset with an emotion I wasn’t familiar with, a feeling I didn’t like.
“I thought we’d try something different,” Hye Soo said behind me. “I don’t really understand why you’re so opposed to that…”
“Why did you think we had to try something different?” I asked, willing my voice to stay neutral. “There was nothing wrong with how we were doing it before.”
I heard her release a breath before she spoke again. “Obviously there is,” she said. “Since you…”
Her voice drifted off and I knew what she was getting at. It was what just happened, but it wasn’t. Not really. Not quite able to pinpoint what the matter was made me more than just a little bit annoyed and all of a sudden, I didn’t want to be here anymore. Before I knew it I had found my boxers and had put them on, then my clothes.
Hye Soo watched me in silence, her eyes studying my face. I made sure to reveal nothing, grateful that I wasn’t quite sure what was going on either. How can my face reveal anything when I was uncertain myself what I was feeling?
“I’ll call you,” I said absently as I placed my wallet in my pocket and picked up my phone. The little bag I brought with me shone in the dark and I dropped it off on the bed. “For you.”
She said nothing though I saw a flash of something jump in her eyes. Not that it mattered right now. I felt too unsettled to care about much of anything besides getting the hell out of here.
I didn’t even look at her as I walked towards the exit, uncaring that the door slammed shut behind me. I went straight to the elevators, then out of the hotel lobby, without stopping at the front desk as I had been wont to do in the past. I didn’t call room service to order breakfast. I didn’t do anything but get into my car and quickly drive home.
Once there I sat on my couch, staring at the wall, wondering what brought on this drastic change in one day. I didn’t have to think for a long time before I realized why. Meeting with Na Jeong earlier, seeing with my own eyes what someone was capable of when they really loved someone, being reminded that it was something I had no right to hope for, something I will never deserve, disconcerted me. I laid down on my side, resting my head on the armrest of the couch, forcing my eyes closed.
I breathed in and out deeply a few times, trying to calm my anxious heart, thinking back on the first and last time I fell in love and how it felt to have my heart broken.
I needed to be reminded of why I swore it off in the first place. After a few minutes I didn’t have to remind myself anymore to breathe in and out, the apprehension and concern finally easing off.
Finally, I remembered nothing else, not the past or the present, as I fell into a dreamless sleep.
December 8, 2001
When I awoke, it was still dark outside. There was only a sliver of light filtering through the windows of my apartment, the feature that sealed the deal for me when I bought it years ago. I felt more like myself than I did last night, and I was sure that whatever uneasiness remained will be erased by caffeine. Groggily I walked over to the kitchen and turned the coffeemaker on, turning the setting for a single shot of espresso as well, for good measure. I padded my way to the bathroom, taking my suit jacket off along the way.
A piece of paper fell out of the pocket and for a moment I wondered if Hye Soo had placed it there when I picked it up and recognized Shawn’s handwriting.
Get the Sensazioni gift box and maybe a bar of their porcelana or chuao. The porcelana comes out in December and is gone within days.
2123 Filmore Street, San Francisco
I leaned back on the kitchen counter and stared at the piece of paper, seriously thinking about how far I should take this, whether I should stop now. Gia wasn’t even my style. I can walk away now and none would be the wiser. She might even be relieved.
I thought about her kindness to Joon and Gertie, and the selfish part of me wanted some of it for myself. I wanted her to look at me, just once, with something less than wariness and distrust. I wanted her to direct her smile at me. It may solely be about the challenge of getting her to accept me and gaining the upper hand… I don’t know… But…
I have to do this, I thought. I always finish what I started. I will quit once she has gone out with me. I will stop once I have figured her out.
I pulled my phone out and checked the time. 3 a.m. It would only be noon in San Francisco. Perfect. I dialed the number and waited for someone to answer the call.
“Hi, good afternoon, I just wanted to find out if you still carried the Amedei brand of chocolates,” I said quickly, wondering whether they receive many phone calls like this.
“Which ones are you looking for?” She asked.
“Ahh,” I said, looking at the piece of paper. “The Sensazioni gift box. A bar of your porcelana and chuao.”
“We have the gift box, but only a bar each left of the other two,” she responded. A bar each? It’s only the beginning of December and they’re almost sold out already? As if reading my mind, she added, “They’re really popular and are our best sellers.”
“That’s fine,” I said. “I’ll take a gift box and the two bars.” Realizing that I can’t exactly waltz into the store all the way from Seoul with Joon’s game in a couple of weeks, I asked, “By any chance, you wouldn’t happen to deliver, would you?”
“No, we don’t,” she said. “Do you still want them?”
“Yes, absolutely,” I said, remembering the service I used last time to get Gia the medication and food. “Will you take payment over the phone?”
“I can,” she said. “Please hold on.”
When she came back on the line she took all my details down and rang up the purchase so as to give me an order confirmation number. Once she had given me the information I quickly jotted it down.
“I’ll have a courier pick it up today,” I said.
“Okay, have a great day.”
“Hold on one second,” I requested, just now realizing that she hadn’t given me my total. “How much was the charge made for?”
“Let me see… With sales tax, it comes to a grand total of $422.10,” she said and I felt my mouth widen. Ouch. I can honestly say I have never spent so much on chocolate before.
“Great,” I said, as soon as I was able to speak. “Thank you.”
She hung up the call and I looked at my phone in something akin to shock. Almost 450 dollars for chocolate bars. This better be good.
I scrolled down my log and found the number for TaskRabbit, holding my breath as the phone continued to ring.
“Thanks for calling TaskRabbit, this is Zach, what can I do for you?”
“This is Jung Jin Lee,” I began, “I believe I had an account created the last time I placed an order for a job.”
“Oh yes, Ms. Lee, I remember,” he said and it took a moment to register that he was talking to me and that he called me a Miss. I was about to correct him when he spoke. “Thank you for the tip last time. What would you like for me to do for you today?”
“I need someone to pick up an order I placed at Bittersweet Cafe on Filmore and deliver it to the same address and recipient on file.”
“That should be no problem,” he said.
“If she’s not home can it be delivered to another location?” I asked, just now realizing that she might be working.
“Absolutely, we can do anything you request,” he answered, his voice taking on a flirtatious tone and I shook my head. “Anything at all.”
“The alternate address is UCSF Medical Center, ” I said, trying to figure out if I should bother even correcting his blunder.
“No, the one off Parnassus Avenue. Cardiovascular Intensive Care Unit. She’s a nurse there,” I told him. “You can use the credit card on file. Please give yourself the same percentage for the tip.”
“Got it,” he said. I heard the phone ringing in the background and Zach seemed to hesitate before he spoke again. “I have to go, Ms. Lee, but I have to say… I wouldn’t be so concerned about your voice. I happen to think it’s sexy.”
That’s it. Enough’s enough. I was about to tell him once and for all that I am a man and to stop referring to me as a woman when I heard the phone click and the call ended. Even before I could tell him to forget the large tip because of his ridiculous assumptions.
I held the phone in my hand incredulously for a few minutes after, even way after my coffee and espresso was done. Ever since Joon was in that hospital, I feel like I’ve been stuck in an alternate universe and everything was topsy turvy. Nothing was working out the way it had always done before his injury.
All of a sudden, a woman wasn’t interested in me, I’m having issues with my equipment, and I’m remembering things about my past. I’m managing a Joon, my biggest rival is also a Joon and I’m being spoken to like I was a woman. I’m buying 400 dollar chocolates, sending flowers, medication and food across continents, helping old ladies at the park, and behaving like a fool, at best, or a stalker. And the woman hadn’t so much as thanked me. Not one word. Still.
This universe is very strange. I’m not entirely sure I liked being here, quite positive that I didn’t belong here. But that doesn’t change the fact that this is where I seem to be now, and that this is where I’ll stay until I choose to leave. And in some ways, I didn’t really feel like leaving yet.
For the first time in years I wasn’t quite sure what to expect on a daily basis. I had a goal I wanted to accomplish, no longer drifting around living every day the same way as the one before. I was trying new things, doing new things, thinking in new ways.
This was a strange universe but it was kind of interesting, too. It was alien to me… Undiscovered, unknown, and waiting to be explored. Just like the woman who dragged me into it.
UCSF Medical Center
San Francisco, California
December 7, 2001
I was just finishing report to the oncoming charge nurse and washing my hands at the sink when I was called back to the nurses’ station. I saw someone standing by the desk, his back to me.
“She’s right there, now,” I heard one of the nurses I worked with say before pointing to me.
The courier turned around and sent me a smile and I reluctantly smiled back. I recognized him from a couple of months ago, though for the life of me I couldn’t place his name. I grabbed a paper towel on my way to the chair behind the desk, wiping my wet hands dry before addressing him.
“You’re from that place, right?” I asked before checking my pager to make sure there were no messages before I left. “May I help you?”
“Yes,” he said before ceremoniously dropping a shiny paper bag in front of me. “I have a delivery for you.” He handed me his clipboard and I signed automatically, just like I did last time.
“What is it this time?” I asked, not realizing that Junnie had sent me something else.
He pointed to the box and I didn’t recognize the name on it, though for a moment i wondered if it had something to do with me complaining that the washing machine had ruined one of my shirts. The maintenance man she sent already came before I even went to work earlier, and all was fixed. It’s only a shirt and though it held some sentimental value, it was already old and getting worn in some places anyway, so there was no need to replace it.
I opened the bag and smiled when I saw what it was. A gift box from my favorite chocolatier and a couple of their limited edition bars. Junnie remembered. She remembered that I loved this brand and that they only released these bars in small batches. For the third time in a row last year they were all gone before I managed to purchase some and Junnie never heard the end of it. Though the brand was still fairly unknown everywhere else, most people in San Francisco knew that they were worth their weight in gold.
I set the gift box on the table before taking the two bars for myself and discreetly putting them to the side. It was only just now that I realized that the other nurses had gathered around me and that the courier was still standing there. I felt obliged to offer my co-workers what was in the gift box and opened it so that we could all share. Junnie wouldn’t mind. Besides, I planned on paying her back anyway.
My best friend is amazing… Half the time I don’t know how she manages to get everything done in this city when she lived a million miles away. She was more familiar with San Francisco and how to get things done here than I was.
“Here, guys,” I said. “Have some. I don’t eat chocolate anyway.”
My co workers didn’t need any more encouragement and helped themselves to the chocolate bars of their choice. I waited for their reactions as they took their first bites, satisfied that they had the same reaction the first time I tried this chocolate myself. The pleased and happy looks on their faces told me that I did the right thing… After all, what good is enjoying something when you can’t share it with others?
“Do I need to tip you this time?” Still unable to remember his name I racked my head over and over. He smiled at me before he shook his head no.
“Nah,” he replied. “I was just waiting for a reaction.” At my no doubt confused look he grinned. “Most people hire us to do things for themselves… It’s very rare that they use us to keep sending stuff to other people. Your friend is so awesome.”
“She is,” I agreed and watched him wave and then walk out of the nursing station.
I was the back of my computer to make sure that my candy bars were safe, and pulled my phone out of my pocket. I clicked on Junnie’s name and then typed quickly.
You didn’t have to do that. I know that must have been expensive. Thank you though… You’re the best.
I was just putting my phone back in my pocket when I heard David’s voice from behind me.
“Gigi… Can I see you in the office for a minute?”
I straightened my spine and turned to face him before I followed into the room just behind the nurses’ station. I closed the door behind me as I entered, then sat myself down across from him at the table. David busied himself with some emails on his computer before printing a sheet of paper out and laying it on the table.
“Am I in trouble or something?” I asked jokingly though I wasn’t really kidding. Most of the time I worked without being micro-managed and it’s a rare occasion that David calls me in here. And nine times out of ten it’s not for something good.
He looked at the piece of paper before looking at me. “There’s an opening in the unit for a Clinical Coordinator,” he started, his serious expression breaking out into a smile. “It will only be posted internally. I want to know if you would interview… for formality. The job is yours if you want it. ”
I sat in silence for a few minutes, shocked that I was the first person he considered. Though I’ve been a nurse for a long time I don’t have any management experience besides delegating on a day to day basis. I felt the need to point out just that to him, in case he had made a mistake.
“I know damn well that you were more experienced and more qualified to take my job when I applied for it a few years ago,” he said. “But you’re not a paper pusher, or a bullshitter. This position affords you the opportunity to do what you’ve always done while making more money. You’ve been in charge of the training process for our new grads and new employees for a while. You already run the floor whenever you’re here, resolve conflicts when they arise. There is no one who knows this unit better than you do…. And no one that the staff respect more.”
“What does the job actually entail, though? ” I asked, panic already setting in, my hands becoming clammy under the table. I should say yes…. God knows I could use the extra money. But… To say yes would mean that I would have to stay here. And though I’ve already been here for years, that choice was reassessed on a quarterly basis. My voice shaky, I added, “and when will the position post?”
“It won’t be for another three months,” David responded, smiling, completely oblivious to my distress.
“Was that all?” I asked, forcing my face to relax.
“You don’t look happy.”
“I am.” I swallowed the nerves that were just bubbling in the pit of my abdomen. “I am.”
“But you never gave me an answer,” David reminded me with an eyebrow raised.
“When?” he asked.
“Soon,” I said. “Don’t worry… I’ll give you an answer.”
I walked out of the office without allowing him to say any more, then straight to my desk to grab my chocolate bars before heading to the break room, grabbing my purse and leaving the unit. My colleagues all watched as I quickly made my way out the door, with nary a word for any of them, no doubt surprised. I was always the one who came earliest and left the latest. But David’s offer caught me off guard and I needed time to process it.
I walked the hallways of the hospital quickly, then straight out of the exit. I walked to the bus stop and waited for the bus that would take me back South Market, to where Junnie’s loft was.
I stood with the other people waiting, some on the phone, some with other people. Everyone was in their own worlds, uncaring and unaware of other’s lives. I preferred it this way.
When the bus came I walked the aisle towards the seat I always occupied, at the back. I sat myself down, my legs exhausted from the twelve hour shift, my back aching. It wasn’t until I was taking my badge off to put it in my purse that I remembered that I had forgotten to swipe out. Damn.
Tempted to go back and rectify that situation but too tired to be bothered, I stayed sitting even at the next stop, resting my head on the glass window, settling in for the fifteen minute ride. As the bus passed streets and people, my mind couldn’t help but wander back to what David just offered me.
For my peace of mind I should just stay no. Refuse the position. Turn my back away from the opportunity. A part of me knew this was the easiest way out of this predicament. But another part of me… Was tired of younger nurses, less experienced nurses, moving ahead in their lives. They surpass me with their weddings and their children. They’re getting their degrees and getting promoted. They’re growing up and moving on while I am in the same place, working the same position, alone.
I’ve never been good at finishing anything… Whether I started it or not. I lack the ability to ever see anything through to the end. Most of my ventures ended up half completed. I can’t even stick to one hobby properly… Lost count of how many half knitted scarves I had made. I don’t have a car, pets, or even my own place. I can’t cook, can barely clean. I dont even have any talents that may be insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but would have, at least, made me more interesting. I was average, in every aspect of my life. Forgettable. That had been my goal. Drawing attention to myself meant drawing attention to my past, to my family, to things I didn’t want others examining.
I’ve made a conscious effort to fit in, to blend in, to not make myself noticeable. Except at my job. It was the one thing… The one thing I was really, really good at. I may be shit at everything else, but I knew without even a shadow of a doubt, that I was an exceptional nurse. In a life filled with trying not to stand out, I took pride in this one thing. And now I can be recognized for it.
I’ve earned this. I deserved this.
Torn between the desire to have something just for me and my fear of being held down by anything, I wasn’t quite sure what to do. If I take this position I would be responsible, accountable, and depended on to stay. I can already feel the weight of obligation clamping a vice around me, and I hadn’t even said yes.
I have three months. That’s plenty of time. That’s plenty of time to get used to the idea, to get comfortable with it. That’s plenty of time to figure out what to do.
My thoughts were so scrambled that I didn’t bother to get off when the bus passed my stop the first time. Didn’t leave when it passed it the second time. Or the third.
Pacific Bell Park
San Francisco, California
December 24, 2001
I looked over at Joon as we waited for the Giants management to enter the conference room. The last couple of days have been hectic, as if life was fast forwarded again for both of us since the charity game at Yonsei. I had anticipated it would be like this as soon as I saw Joon step on the mound that evening. He was the same baseball player, but different. The Kim Jae Joon that took the pitcher’s mound that game was confident, comfortable in his own skin, fearless. No one else would have noticed it, but I’ve been with him for many years… And I knew it as soon as he smiled.
Even now, looking at him, there was something relaxed about the way he carried himself. The Joon that I met before Japan had been self-conscious, eager to please. Five years ago he had adjusted his tie almost obsessively, changed positions in his seat so much he drove me to distraction.
He sat on his chair, looking out the windows, beautiful Liberty Bell Park lit up by the sunshine in view. He was dressed in a tailored suit and tie, his hair slicked back, his ring back on the fourth finger of his left hand. He tapped his finger on the tabletop, seemingly lost in his own world.
The team lawyer was already here with us, waiting as well. I kept a neutral expression on my face even as I mentally prepared myself for what was to come. This was my bread and butter. What I get paid to do. What I excelled at more than anything else. It was my duty to ensure that his career remained successful and to protect his future. After seeing how quickly the tides changed for him after his injury, it became even more crucial for me to put some safeguards against that moving forward. I will never let that kind of abandonment ever happen again.
It had been a long rough road for all of us, but it seemed he had come out better than ever, his relationship with his mother improving little by little, his relationship with Na Jeong stronger than I’d ever seen it. The ghosts of Jae Joon’s past had quietly abated, finally at peace. I wished I could say the same for myself.
I haven’t seen Hye Soo since that disastrous night. I haven’t heard from her either. Might as well. The time off I’ve had from work had meant that I had more free time. I’ve seen her more in the last two months than in the last two years and prickles of stagnation were taking hold. That’s gotta be what it is, I told myself. I was getting bored.
I wonder if Gia was working today, I thought. That I would still think about her in face of such ingratitude rankled. A frown came over my face when I recalled what I was told by the courier service. I had called to make sure that everything had been done only to be told that she had ended up giving the chocolates to all her co-workers. Who does things like that? Still, that Zach person said that she, at least, agreed that I was awesome, before he proceeded to ask me when I was coming back to San Francisco and if we could meet up for a coffee. What a strange person.
Gia had not displayed any of the warmth and friendliness she did the first few days we exchanged texts. The fact that she carried on like it never actually happened baffled me. I was really beginning to think that the interest had been mutual. I refused to believe that I was wrong about this. My instincts were normally very good, but she was making me question that as well.
The sound of the door opening interrupted my thoughts and I looked up just in time to see the management team enter the room. Joon and I stood up simultaneously, polite smiles on both our faces. I’ve taught Joon well. He’s learned how to put his battle face on.
“JJ, it’s good to see you again,” Dave Righetti, the pitching coach, said as he held out a hand to Joon. I watched as Joon took it before Mr. Righetti offered me the same courtesy, and said, “Mr. Lee, you too.”
I shook his hand and waited until they had all seated themselves before I reclaimed my seat.
One of the receptionists entered with a tray of refreshments and we all waited until she was out of the door before anyone actually spoke.
“JJ… Let’s cut to the chase,” Dusty Baker, the manager said. “It’s Christmas Eve here and we would like to spend some time with our families too. We heard about the game you just played a few days ago. We would like to renegotiate your contract.”
“There is no contract,” I said quietly, before putting the coffee cup I had been drinking from down. “As of September, Jae Joon became a free agent.”
“That’s what we wanted to talk about. We’ve come up with a contract that we think would make the Giants the most attractive option for JJ.” Dusty Baker nodded at his lawyer and the solicitor placed a folder on the table before sliding it over for us to read.
I opened the file and read it’s contents, my eyes skipping over the official nonsense and scanning for what really mattered. The numbers. USD 5 million for 2 years. I felt a feeling of satisfaction upon reading the huge sum, even as I acknowledged that Joon is easily worth at least 2 million more.
I gave the folder to Joon and watched as he did the same. I knew the moment he saw the numbers as well, as his eyes met mine quickly, the expression in them indiscernible.
“We know that it’s a good contract… and of course, it will be contingent on JJ staying here until the season starts so we can take over his physical therapy and do some conditioning,” the manager continued to say. “We also need him examined by the team physician to make sure everything is okay.”
My eyes veered back to Dusty Baker, a former hard hitting outfielder for nineteen years before he became a manager. He won numerous awards as a ballplayer, including being part of the team that won the World Series in 1981. He was even a former San Francisco Giants player himself. Having won the National League Manager of the Year title three times, all of them while he’s been with the Giants, he had a reputation for being tough but fair, and I knew that he had fought for Joon as much as he could when he had gotten injured. I also knew that he was hungry for a championship though his body language didn’t say so. The man knew they had the upper hand, though I also knew that now is the time to take advantage of the fact that they so obviously wanted Joon if they still sent out a scout to watch him play in an unofficial game, then make an offer without any guarantees that he will perform at his top form. Knowing all this, my strategy was in place, all I had to do now was stick to the plan.
“You do realize that he’s received several offers from other teams as well,” I said. “Their offers are not as generous as yours… But the Oakland As are paying for his housing and the Mets told him they can get him a permanent visa.”
The manager gave me a little smile before turning to his lawyer. They spoke quietly for a few minutes before he responded. “That can also be arranged.”
“Can you give us a minute to discuss this?” Joon asked, a genuine yet distant smile on his face. All the men nodded and then made their way out of the door. I kept my eyes on Joon as he watched the door close, and as soon as it was he turned to me. “Hyung… What do you think?”
“It doesn’t matter what I think…” I started. “… But what you think. I just wanted to make sure the options that you had were the best possible ones. That’s my job.” Joon stayed looking at me, his eyes familiar and trusting. “… To make sure you’re taken care of. If you take their offer, you’re pretty much set for life. You’ll come back to Korea having made the best comeback. And you know I will have no problem staying in San Francisco. But at the end of the day, it’s your choice.”
And it was. I had done my part. I had done what he depended on me for, and I had done it well. The world was at his feet, ready for the taking, though I got the feeling that it wasn’t really what he wanted anymore. But still… I made sure that he had the best options possible, both for himself and Na Jeong. I made sure he received an offer he deserved.
He sat back and looked back out of the windows as he thought about it. His eyes were focused, determined. For as long as I had known him, the money had never been the issue, nor the fame. Joon played baseball for two things: for acknowledgment and for a misguided sense of stability. I have seen people stick with other, less attractive, situations for much much less. Joon won’t say no. I know I wouldn’t. No one would.
The minutes ticked on by, my eyes on the clock hanging on the wall. When the five minute mark had passed, I knew it was time. We can’t keep them waiting any longer.
“Joon-ah,” I began and he turned towards me. “Have you made a decision?”
I stood up and opened the door, motioning for the men to come back in. They all entered, and the expression on my face must have given what the conclusion was away because as soon they looked at me, they immediately smiled, as if breathing a sigh of relief. Behind me Joon also stood, showing them his respect. I sat back down once they were all seated, as did Jae Joon.
Joon took a pen out of his suit jacket and brought the open file closer to him. His right hand hovering over the paper, I listened as he clicked the pen once, then twice. Then a third, fourth, and fifth time. The men in front of us exchanged glances as they seemingly realized as each second passed that what they had thought was certain was, in fact, nowhere near so.
“Joon-ah,” I urged to Joon in Korean, my voice low. “They’re waiting for you to sign.”
Though I knew he was listening his eyes held a faraway look, before being replaced by a more intense, more single minded one. It was the first time that Joon was making a decision without anyone else’s input. Not even mine. After all he’s been through, he deserved this. This was his choice and no one else’s. It’s time for Kim Jae Joon to stand on his feet, to prove that he can. He’d been able to for years, though never more so than now.
I saw him slide the folder back towards the men that sat across from us, without his signature. He had a small smile on his lips, his face completely relaxed. The Giants management exchanged puzzled glances and when Joon turned to look at me, I had already raised an eyebrow in surprise.
“Are you trying to play hardball, JJ?” Dusty Baker asked, his tone taking on a harder edge. “I didn’t think you were the type. Did you want more money? Was that it?”
Joon shook his head no before responding. “No…” He said. “I’m sorry but I changed my mind. I thank you for the opportunity, but I have to beg your pardon. I just realized that I have too much to leave behind in Korea. My apologies.”
“I thought you weren’t close to your family?” He continued, genuine puzzlement in his voice. “And that you were unmarried?”
“Things have changed since I’ve been injured,” Joon said amiably. “My priorities have changed. I’m not the same man that I was when I first came here two years ago. I am grateful for all that you have taught me… But no amount of money will convince me to stay.”
Before I could ask Joon if he was sure about what he was refusing, he had already stood up and offered a hand politely. I stood up and buttoned my suit jacket and stepped aside as the management team and their solicitors took Joon’s hand and shook it, looking taken aback. I think I may have an idea how they felt. I was just as surprised as they were.
Joon left the room first before nodding his head for me to follow. Everything had happened so quickly my brain was having trouble processing it all. Kim Jae Joon just said no to one of the best offers made in MLB history… certainly the best one offered to a returning injured foreign player.
“Joon-ah… Are you sure about this?” I asked again, just to be sure. “I’ll manage you in Korea too… But…”
“Hyung… ” he responded, his tone wistful. “Do you know what went through my head the whole time I was in there?”
“Na Jeong,” I answered without any hesitation. Na Jeong is always first and last in his mind, his voice of reason and sanity. She was also his weakness, his fear of losing her motivating each and every decision he’s made in the past. “She’s already said she’d wait for you.”
“Yeah, I thought about Na Jeong, but I also thought of the other people in my life, too,” he replied, and I was even more surprised. “I’ve never been more sure of anything in my life. And yeah, Na Jeong will wait. But I am no longer willing to wait. I’m not just a baseball player anymore. I’m a partner, a son, a brother, a cousin and a friend. Those are the things that I choose to define me now.”
I continued looking at him, my brain finally catching up with everything he’s saying. He had done what I wouldn’t have been able to do, what no one else would have been able to do. I found myself marveling at how, in the space of a few months, the client I thought of as a little brother, someone I thought of as one who needed protection and guidance, had grown up right before my very eyes. Pride came over me then, that he had finally found his place in the world, found where he belonged. And a small amount of sorrow, as well.
Jae Joon and I got along well because we were used to the same type of lifestyle. We were nomads, forced to make a home wherever we may be. He and I had been alike for so long and for so many years, except I’ve just now realized that Joon had lived that lifestyle because he thought it was what he deserved, and not by his own choosing. Unlike me.
Joon yearned for permanency, for a real home and a real family. He’s had it all along, certainly, even I had seen that, but I believe I’ve just seen the exact moment when he realized exactly what that meant. Like so many other achievements in his life, I had the rare opportunity to witness that moment firsthand. And of all that he managed to gain, it seemed, seeing the look of contentment on his face, that he was proudest of this. I admired his courage, his belief. For the first time in many years, I envied someone else. He not only had love now… He finally had himself.
“Joon-ah,” I said softly, wondering how it must feel to have everything he’s ever wanted. Wondering if it will ever happen to me.
“I’m not changing my mind, Hyung,” he repeated, his tone resolute. ” And I won’t regret it either.”
I met his eyes over the roof the car and sent sent a wry smile his way.
“I was just going to say…” I said, before pressing the button that would open the car doors. “I asked you who you were a year ago and I think you finally have an answer. Congratulations.”
He smiled back at me so widely it was as if his eyes disappeared before he sat in the car. I fastened my seatbelt and turned the key in the ignition, waiting for the motor to purr Into life before I shifted the gear into first drive. Joon waited until I had pulled out of the parking lot before I heard him clear his throat. He had something else to say, I thought, as I put the car back on neutral. I looked at him, readying myself for any other surprises he might have in store.
“Hyung,” he said hesitantly and I was struck by a sense of deja vu, the tone so reminiscent of how he had begun every serious conversation we’ve had over the years.
“Just spit it out, Joon-ah, ” I said. “Nothing can possibly surprise me any more than what you did in there.”
“I’m going to ask Na Jeong to marry me on New Year’s Eve.”
“I figured as much.”
“Can you get me a ticket back to Korea as soon as….”
“Already done,” I said, patting my suit pocket. “Did you think I wouldn’t know that you would want to go back home as quickly as possible whether or not you took this contract?”
“But… They said I would have to stay…”
“Na Jeong is scarier than they are. She will never forgive me if if I took you away for Christmas and New Year’s.”
“You’re right,” he conceded. “Her temper is legendary.”
There was such pride in his voice I couldn’t help but smile. The love Joon had for Na Jeong had been a constant in his life, but her love for him now was just as certain. That they would want to be together on such an important day was a given, and I was relieved that with all the uncharacteristic things that Joon had been doing recently, at least this, I thought, this… I could still predict.
San Francisco International Airport
San Francisco, California
December 25, 2001
“Why aren’t you coming back home again?” Joon asked as he sipped on a cup of cappuccino, his bag on the seat next to him, a baseball cap on his head. “It’s Christmas day. Wouldn’t your family want you home?”
We were sitting at one of the back tables at Emporio Rulli, a coffee shop just outside security of the International Terminal at the airport, waiting for Joon’s departure gate to be posted.
To make himself less noticeable, Joon had dressed the way he always did in university, in tracksuit bottoms and a hooded sweatshirt. He looked just like a normal young person. He certainly didn’t look like a world renowned athlete, though he still received admiring stares, something which I will be sure never to mention to Na Jeong. I was dressed in jeans and and cable knit sweater, boots on my feet.
I stared at my espresso, not really knowing how to respond to his question. I had no specific plans when I decided to stay… it just felt like I should get away from Seoul for a little while longer. Luckily for me, I had a home in San Francisco, and it was as good a place as any to escape.
“You know as well as I do that Christmas is no big deal in Korea. Besides they all went to Taiwan to see Noona anyway,” I responded. “I’ll be home soon enough, and it will be a while before I can come back here with your training starting again in a few months.”
Joon nodded and took a bite of his bomboloni, a fried all yeast pastry much like a donut. “You sure you’re not just staying to see Noona again?” He asked.
“I just told you… All of my Noonas are in Taiwan.”
“I didn’t mean them… I meant Nurse Noonim.” He raised his eyebrows at me a few times over his pastry and I shook my head.
“That nurse isn’t even talking to me right now,” I said. “I wouldn’t call her Noonim yet.”
“Hyung… I told you. Sometimes slow and steady wins the race,” he said. “Look at me and Na Jeong.”
“You can’t really compare us to you two,” I reasoned. “You’ve known each other since college.”
“I would give you advice but I have no experience,” he said, wiping his mouth with a napkin. “Besides waiting, I didn’t really have to do much else… And that’s not exactly your style.”
“Waiting really is not my thing, Joon-ah.”
I blew on my coffee before taking a sip. No… waiting is really not something I liked to do. This situation required some more careful thinking…. Perhaps a change in strategy. To be honest I was completely, totally stumped. All of my tried and true techniques have been used to get a response, maybe even a thank you, but none have worked. I feel like a sixteen year old kid with a crush. But my crush isn’t even my type. And she’s probably just going along her merry way not even thinking of me. Like, at all.
I don’t like this. It’s very rare that I am not the one with a clear handle on things. I am not used to not calling the shots. However, it seemed as the days went by that this… Situation had gone beyond my control and she had the upper hand. Which she continued to ignore. She’s not saying no, at least not explicitly, but not saying yes, either. I was stuck in a limbo.
Joon’s low chuckle distracted me from my thoughts and I looked up to see him watching me with an amused look.
“Nothing,” he said, his slow laugh tapering off. “Just… You looked so annoyed I never realized that I had never seen you look like that before. It’s kind of nice.”
“Nice that I’m annoyed?” I asked. “How is that nice?”
“It’s not nice for you that you’re annoyed,” he replied. “But nice for me to see that you’re only human after all. That you’re not always as courteous and polite as you seem. Normally you’re dripping with charm, and people naturally respond to it. It’s nice to see that you do have other things going on and that there are people who are immune to you. I know you hate it, but it makes me like Nurse Noonim more and I don’t even know her yet.”
Neither do I, I thought. It’s like I was talking to two completely different people. I took a big bite of my sfogliatina in frustration.
Joon picked up his bag, as well as his passport and a magazine suddenly and I looked up behind me to see that his gate had been posted up. I finished my drink and was standing up when I heard him speak.
“Hyung… It’s okay,” he said, putting a hand on my shoulder. “Finish your food.”
“It’s fine, Joon-ah. I’m going to cook dinner when I get home anyway.”
“Why don’t you just pick up food?” He asked. “It seems almost senseless that you’re going to cook just for yourself.”
“Hey… I can cook. Besides… I am not eating store bought food on Christmas day… Korean or not. I happen to be in America right now and I don’t want to look like a sad person.”
“Ah, is that right?” He asked as we walked towards the departure gate.
“Do you have everything?” I asked. “Your tickets and boarding pass… Your passport?: He nodded. “Cash for the cab once you get back home?” Again, he nodded his head in response. It was the first time that Joon was traveling without me, and I forget at times that he is more than capable of doing things on his own.
“I got it,” he said. “Hyung… I’ll be fine.”
“Are you sure you’re okay about going back on your own?”
“I don’t always need you with me, Hyung…” He answered, checking his itinerary. “And I know you wanted to spend New Year’s Eve with your lady.” I was about to correct him and tell him that she wasn’t my anything when he asked, “You’ll be coming back on the 3rd?”
“Yeah… We have meetings all the week after so you better have your game face on. And you better keep up with your training while you’re in Korea,” I reminded him. “I don’t want to hear anything from anyone when I get back.”
“I will.” In a rare show of affection Joon wrapped his arms around me, then walked off with his passport and boarding pass before turning back to me. “Hyung, thanks for everything.”
“It was nothing, Joon-ah,” I answered sincerely. “Go.”
He waved at me one more time as he joined the queue and I waited until he had disappeared behind the wall to walk back to the parking deck. I was paying for the parking ticket when my phone vibrated in my pocket and I picked it up without checking who it was.
“Merry Christmas!” I heard Shawn’s voice say happily. “I know it’s not Christmas anymore where you are, but it’s the thought that counts, right?”
“It’s still Christmas where I am, Shawn. I’m back in San Francisco.”
“Oh really? I thought your boy wasn’t coming back anytime soon?”
“Things changed,” I said. “The last few days have been hectic so I haven’t even checked any of your emails.”
“What’s new?” My friend was well used to me not responding to emails ever. If at all.
“I’ll be back in Seoul in about a week.”
“Ah… Well… Merry Christmas anyway. I was going to call you to ask how your girl responded to the chocolates a week ago but I forgot.”
“Apparently she didn’t. I was told she gave it to her coworkers.” I pulled out my receipt from the ticket machine and started walking towards where I parked the car. “I have a bone to pick with you.”
“You could have warned me that a box of those babies alone was going to cost almost 400 dollars. With the delivery fee I almost paid 600 dollars just to give a woman chocolates.”
“What’s money have to do with anything when it comes to love?” Shawn asked and I frowned.
“Who said anything about love?”
I heard a sigh before another response. “What are you doing sending such expensive chocolates to someone you’re not serious about? You’re going to lead her on.”
“You’re the one who recommended the stuff,” I argued. “And… If only the woman would be led on. I wish I could lead her on. But she hasn’t said a word to me.”
“The girl’s tough,” Shawn commented. “Good for her.”
“Aren’t you supposed to be on my side or some shit like that? Who knew you were such a wayward friend?”
“You need to be put in your place once in a while. I will support whoever has the ability and the courage to do that. You’ve come a long way from the dorky guy you were in college… A bit too far sometimes. I hope she drains your bank account.”
“Did you call me just so you can make me feel bad?”
“Why?” Shawn countered. “It’s not as if she will be able to do that easily. You’re forgetting that I know what your net worth is… Unless, of course, you’ve gotten yourself involved with a money hungry woman.”
“Nope,” I said with certainty. “She’s nothing like that.”
“I’m liking her more and more. A woman not impressed by your good looks or your money? She’s a keeper.”
“If that’s all you called me for…”
“Ahh… I remember why I called now…” Shawn interrupted. “What do you want me to do with the earnings from your investments this year? Reinvest or send you a check?”
“How much is it?”
“About three million.”
“US or Singaporean dollars?” I asked.
“What do you think?” The answer was said sarcastically, enough that I knew it was in US currency that we were talking about and I whistled under my breath. Shawn is a genius. “Reinvest half and send the rest via wire straight to my bank account. I’m thinking of buying another property.”
“Got it.” Shawn paused for a second then spoke again. “I have to go. I have a few more phone calls to make to my other friends.”
“You don’t have any other friends.”
“You wish that was the case. I’m hanging up. Call me when you’re back in Korea.”
“Yup.” I had just uttered the word when I heard the call end.
What is it with my friends all celebrating in my failure at winning this woman over? They’re supposed to encourage and support me, and yet they’re all on her side and they don’t even know her. My friends are even nicer to her than they are to me. If this pursuit ended up being a bust, neither Joon nor Shawn will let me live it down. Never.
I realized now that there really was only one solution to this dilemma. Either I find a way to take control back over this situation, or… Get new friends.
“Merry Christmas!” Junnie said on the phone. “I just got back a couple of days ago… Sorry I haven’t called. It’s been nuts around here. Did you get my emails?”
“Yeah,” I said pulling out a microwave meal from the freezer and reading the cooking instructions. “How was Hong Kong?”
“Beautiful, as always,” she replied and I preheated the oven to 400 degrees, just like the instructions said. I plopped myself down on the couch, wearing my pajamas already. “Did you end up working today?”
“Yes,” I said. “I just got home half an hour ago.”
“I can’t believe that you were working again this Christmas.”
“The hospital is open 24/7. Someone has to work… Besides, I offered. A lot of the other nurses just got married or just had babies.”
“That doesn’t make them more worthy of having Christmas off,” Junnie grumbled. I rolled my eyes as this discussion happens every year. I can’t remember the last Christmas I didn’t work.
“Please tell me you have a proper meal tonight.”
“I do… I have…” I paused then tried to remember what microwave meal I’d picked up. “Turkey and stuffing… Mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans. There’s a bottle of wine in the fridge…”
“And for dessert? Your mom makes awesome leche flan. Did she send you some this year?”
I permitted myself a small smile thinking about my mother’s specialty, one that’s been my favorite since I was young, one she still sends me every birthday and Christmas. “Yeah, she did.” I propped my legs up on the coffee table, where I had put up a small plastic tree and decorated it with lights. “Plus I still have the stuff you sent me.”
“What does that have to do with anything?” She asked. “You can’t eat ramen for dessert.”
“What ramen?” I asked, confused. “Ah… The ramen you sent a month ago? No, I wasn’t referring to that. I meant the chocolates.”
“What chocolates?” Junnie asked and I shook my head. Is she feigning ignorance now?
“Amedei chocolates. Don’t pretend you don’t know, Jun, I might just believe you.”
“I didn’t send you any chocolates,” she insisted. “How could I have? I’ve been in Hong Kong for three weeks.”
“Who knows how you do the things you do?” I said. “Of course you sent me the chocolates.”
“I can assure you I did not send you any chocolates.”
She sounded so certain I was almost convinced that she had no clue what the hell I was talking about. “But… What about your response to the text message I sent you thanking you for them?”
“What did I say?” She asked.
“You said,” I started, trying to jog my memory. Unable to remember her exact words, I said, “Hold on…” I put her on speaker and scrolled down her messages. “…You said, no problem. It’s no big deal. I got a discount.”
“I did?” She asked, confused. “Am I sending chocolates and text messages without knowing? Is my memory going bad?” She stopped speaking for a minute as if trying to remember before I heard her proceed. “I remember now… You sent me a message thanking me for the maintenance man.”
“I did?” I asked, wondering if we were even talking about the same thing. “What did I say?”
“I’m already looking it up,” Junnie said. “You said… Here it is… You didn’t have to do that. I know that must have been expensive. Thank you though… You’re the best.’ I thought you were thanking me for sending the guy out to fix the washing machine off hours.”
“I was talking about the chocolates. ”
“Why would you assume I sent the chocolates?”
“Because you used the same courier you used last time,” I said, getting a little annoyed from this conversation.
“What last time?”
“Last time,” I said, my voice rising,getting close to desperate now. Am I even speaking to my best friend? Why can’t she remember anything all of a sudden? “You know… Last time a couple of months ago when I had that hangover and you sent medication and food from Spoon?”
“Hold on, what? Medication and food with a spoon? Why would I send a spoon when all the utensils are at the house? Besides I only told you to take medication and have soup.”
“Spoon, Junnie,” I insisted. “Spoon.”
“Yeah… Spoon. The loft has spoons. You eat soup with a spoon,” she countered. “What does that have to do with what we’re talking about?”
“Junnie! Focus! Spoon!”
“I don’t know why you keep saying the word spoon like it’s supposed to mean something to me. I don’t care about spoons. In fact we have two different types of…”
“Spoon is the name of the restaurant you sent food from!” I said. “You sent me some rice porridge!”
“Well… Rice porridge is good for hangovers…”
“Junnie!!! Please stay on topic, you really didn’t send any of that stuff to me?”
“Even if I had been so inclined, how could I have sent the medication, rice porridge and chocolates from a few thousand miles away? I can’t teleport those items to you.”
“You used TaskRabbit!”
“TaskRabbit!” I said, saying it more slowly, as if that would make things clearer. “They run errands for people.”
“There are people who do that?” She asked.
“That’s what I said!”
“Well,” she said. “Did you look at the sender name to see who sent you the stuff? How did you even know it was for you?”
“Junnie… They came to the house AND the hospital. I just assumed it was you because… Well… Because you love me that much?”
“Hate to tell you this, but while I do love you, I’ve always used FedEx to send you stuff… And I always told you to expect it, didn’t I?” She asked and I stayed quiet. I did think it was weird that she would send a personal courier all of a sudden
“I thought you wanted to surprise me,” I said lamely.
“Uhmm… That’s a bit much, even for me,” she said. “It’s not like I’m a boy and I’m courting you.”
Her choice of words suddenly clicked something in my brain and I felt an insane need to throttle my sister. On the other end of the line Junnie was still talking about how amazing it was that there were companies that we can employ to do our errands when she stopped speaking, as if she just noticed my silence.
“Wait… Is there a boy courting you?”
“I wish you’d stop using that word.”
“Court. You’re embarrassing me.”
“Isn’t that the appropriate word, though? When a guy is trying to win a girl over by sending flowers, chocolates, stuff like that?” She asked. “I personally think it’s underutilized nowadays. What’s wrong with a little romance?”
“Romance is dead.”
“Not for you, apparently… So… Who is he?” When I didn’t respond, she continued prodding. “Do you even have any idea who it is?”
“I think so,” I said, finally. “I think it’s that baseball player’s manager.”
“The hottie?” She asked, surprised. “Wow… From how you described him, that didn’t sound much like his style. But… I gotta hand it to him. Amedei. He’s got GOOD taste.”
“Everyone who’s ever tasted that chocolate knows it’s the best, Jun,” I pointed out. “Everyone in San Francisco knows it’s the best.”
“Has he sent you flowers too?”
“You don’t take care of any living things, though.”
“Tell me something I don’t know.”
“Let me guess… Red roses?” She asked. “Men seem to think red roses are the end all and be all, which is the biggest misconception…”
“Actually, no,” I interjected. “He sent me a white bouquet.”
“Handsome and perceptive?” She commented. “No one knows you love white flowers the most.”
“Someone else knows I love white flowers,” I said, exasperated. “Junnie, I have to go.”
“Why? I want to talk some more!”
“We’ll talk tomorrow. I have something I have to do.”
“What could be so urgent that you have to do it on Christmas Day? Are you going to call him? You should call him, to thank him anyway. He’s gone through a lot of trouble. Don’t want the man thinking you’re a bitch.”
“I AM a bitch.”
“You can still be a bitch with manners.”
“Fine… Fine… I’ll call him,” I conceded, my head starting to hurt.
“I promise you,” I said, knowing that she will never get off the phone unless I did. “I will call him after.”
“After?” She asked, sounding confused. “After what?”
“After I kill my sister.”
One hour later
She’s avoiding my phone call, I thought, as my sister’s voicemail picked up for the tenth time in the last hour that I had been trying to call her. She is deliberately not answering, perhaps just now realizing that I had figured out what she did. Wondering what could have possibly possessed her to do such things, I made a mental note to sit down and have a serious discussion with her to explain that 1) I am not looking for anyone and 2) even if I was I did not need her help. I am perfectly capable of finding a man, if I was so inclined.
The microwave meal I had heated up sat on the table in front of me, looking more and more miserable as time passed by. The two slices of turkey breast slathered over a dense mound of stuffing looked artificial, the accompanying gravy appeared goopy and alive. The green beans were a darker shade of green than I was comfortable with and the mashed potatoes a bit too smooth, indicating that they were not made from real potatoes, as its packaging had claimed, but from dried potato flakes instead. The one saving grace on the table was the wrapped Pacifico Amedei chocolate, one of the only two bars I had kept for myself and gifts from my mother, my sister and Junnie. The other chocolate bar didn’t even make it a whole twenty four hours after I got it. I think I ate it all in one go while lying in my sleeping bag, waiting to fall asleep.
The meal in front of me not whetting my appetite, I picked up the phone I had lain on the table. I didn’t want to call him, but I supposed I had no choice now, not if I didn’t want to appear rude. I had to, at the very least, clarify that it hadn’t been me he’d been texting, that I had no idea that my sister had set us both up. I wondered briefly just how long and to what extent they had been communicating, and immediately felt my temper flare up again. I released a breath and scrolled to his number, which I still hadn’t deleted… The reason to which was something I should probably examine more deeply but refuse to at this moment in time.
My finger hesitated over the call button for a few seconds, until I finally bit the bullet and just did it. The phone rang four times and to allay my anxiety, I opened the chocolate bar wrapper and helped myself to a piece. By the time the fifth ring finished, I was still trying to make a decision whether to leave a message or to just leave things be. I haven’t formulated a plan quite yet when I heard a click during the seventh ring then a voice.
“Hello?” he said, his voice lazy, as if he had just woken up.
I tried to say hello back, but no sound would come out of my mouth. I coughed then cleared my throat, and prepared to speak.
“Hello?” He repeated. “Gia-ssi?”
The way he said my name, low and slow, gave my heart an unexpected fluttering, as if he was right in front of me, his dark eyes heavy, caught in the moment between dreaming and waking.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” I ground out. “Yes. I’m okay. Thanks for asking.” The line went quiet, as if he was waiting for me to say something else. Either that or he had fallen back asleep. It’s only 9:30 p.m… But then again I knew people who went to bed as soon as it was dark. Don’t be ridiculous, I told myself. Those people are also 70, 80, and 90 years olds. “Did I catch you at a bad time?”
“No, it’s fine,” he replied. “I fell asleep waiting for my dinner to cool.”
His voice, along with the subtly accented words were wreaking a havoc in my head, and I silently berated myself. Junnie was right… It’s been too long since I had done this. I’ve lost all ability to interact normally with men.
“Ah, really?” Searching my mind for a reason as to why I would call, I hit upon something that I saw a couple of days ago. Yes, I thought, use that. That makes sense. That is believable. “Uhmm… I saw the news a couple of days ago, and they said that JJ was coming back to San Francisco? Had everything worked out, then?”
“Joon did come back, but he left earlier today to spend the New Year’s with his girlfriend and to see his family,” he said. “He didn’t end up getting surgery, if you were curious. He ended up getting preli… Ahh… Profi…”
“Proliferation therapy,” I finished for him. “Yes, I am familiar with the procedure. I did consider that as an option, but it hadn’t been substantiated before and I thought he would need something a bit more guaranteed.” This topic, at least, was something I was familiar with, something I felt safe talking about. Maybe if I just stuck to all topics health and medical related I will be fine.
The silence lengthened and I found myself babbling about physical therapy exercises, about nutrition, all the while cringing at my awkwardness. My information session was only just interrupted by a sound coming from his end, a chuckle. I stopped my sentence midway, convinced that he was laughing at me.
“What?” I asked, attempting to keep the indignation out of my voice.
“Nothing,” he said, the sound of his chuckle disappearing. “Nothing. I wish you would keep talking. I like your voice.”
His response was unexpected and I didn’t know what to say. “Erm… Thank you,” I mumbled. This is ridiculous. I talk to people on the phone a million times a day. This is no different. “Anyway, I just wanted to let you know that I’m glad everything worked out.”
“Me too.” The line went quiet again, as if we were both at a loss for words. “Well… If that’s all you wanted to know…”
“IT WASN’T ME!” I said, quickly.
“What wasn’t you?” He asked, sounding puzzled. But surely… Surely before the end of this conversation I should at least have that one fact established.
“The person you were talking to, texting with, whatever…” I paused and took a deep breath. “It wasn’t me.”
I had come home from the airport and cooked some rice and kimchi jigae, making use of the supplies that I had picked up a couple of days ago. I had anticipated that Joon would have stayed for Christmas at least and prepared just in case. Not really having much else to have as banchan, I whipped up a quick rolled omelette and blanched some spinach before dousing it with a little soy sauce and sesame oil, mixing it with finely minced garlic, a squeeze of lemon juice and some red pepper flakes.
I was waiting for the stew to cool down some when I found myself laying on the couch, the table already set behind me. My mind automatically went back to the only actual conversation I shared on the phone with Gia, and I wondered if she had figured out that she was not speaking to her Joon, but had called me instead.
Who is this Joon? I thought. This secret person’s identity is driving me up the wall. How can I possibly prepare to compete with someone I knew almost nothing about? And what little I did know, made it clear to me that he was way, way ahead of me in her eyes.
With New Year’s Eve and my impending departure from San Francisco looming close by, I felt an immense pressure to make some type of headway. But since all of my sincere efforts hadn’t worked, I’ll just lay low and calm down. Life is about to get busy again soon anyway, and who knows… Maybe the fact that I will not be coming back to San Francisco anytime soon after the next time I leave will do me a world of good.
To this day, almost four months to the day since I first met her, I still wasn’t quite sure what left me so fascinated. Sure, she was pretty, but that’s more an observation of all her facial features as a whole and not necessarily individually. Not one of her features were extravagantly memorable. In fact, if I was being honest, in any other circumstance, under a different situation, I would have thought her plain.
She was intelligent, but that’s nothing new to me. I try my hardest to not associate myself with any women who had nothing going on in their heads, at least not for any real length of time.
Personalities never mattered much to me, either. I’ve learned over the years that people find ways to adapt and conform themselves to whatever others expect of them, especially when it’s a man. People never show their true selves, not until they absolutely had to.
Thinking about this was giving me a headache, and I closed my eyes for a few minutes to slow down the pain that had just begun to throb on the base of my temples. The next thing I knew it was already an hour and a half later, and my phone was ringing on my chest, where I had placed it last when I lifted an arm to support my neck.
I let the phone ring a couple more times, convinced that whoever was calling would leave a message if it was important enough, until it hit me that it might be Joon. Running my fingers through my hair, I reluctantly looked at my phone to make sure it wasn’t my only client telling me that there’d been a problem with his flight. When I saw Gia’s name flashing on the screen I sat up quickly and smoothed a hand over my sweater before scolding myself. Why would I need to tidy myself up when she was not really in front of me? I debated whether to answer, not really sure what to expect. Curiosity, however, won out in the end and I pressed the call button before the voicemail kicked in.
“Hello?” I greeted slowly, and received no response.
Was this another of her mistaken phone calls? Maybe this time she actually accidentally called me again without even realizing it?
“Hello?” I said again, hoping to get an answer this time. “Gia-ssi?” Her name came out in my native tongue, my brain too used to addressing people in such a way. Though, if I was really that concerned about formalities and niceties, I would have acknowledged that we were no more than passing acquaintances and therefore I should have probably addressed her in honorifics. I’ve so long thought of her as Gia-ssi… Or even more often, and definitely in secret, Gia-ya… That to even just hearing it out loud made me happy. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” she said, her voice just as smooth as I remembered, and I brought my other hand to hold the phone closer to my ear. “Yes. I’m okay. Thanks for asking.” She stopped speaking and for a minute I worried that she might have changed her mind about calling me when I heard her speak again. “Did I catch you at a bad time?”
“No, it’s fine…” I said. “I fell asleep waiting for my dinner to cool.”
“Ah, really?” There was silence again, and I took that time to think about other things, other topics to fill the gaps with, looking for ways to make her a little more comfortable. And me, too. I was noticeably uncomfortable, which was very bizarre. I know how to talk to people. I know how to talk to women. The reminder of this fact made me feel somewhat better, until she continued. “Uhmm… I saw the news a couple of days ago, and they said that JJ was coming back to San Francisco? Had everything worked out, then?”
Of course… She would be calling about Joon. Everything I had done… Everything I had sent… None of that drew out a reaction, but Joon did. Did she have some sort of attachment to him because of his name? I frowned over the phone and uttered out my response.
“Joon did come back, but he left earlier today to spend the New Year’s with his girlfriend and to see his family. He didn’t end up getting surgery, if you were curious. He ended up getting preli… Ahh… Profi…”
Dammit. A little self conscious that despite my American post-secondary education, I never quite managed to get rid of my accent still, I thought I was doing really well until now. I always had a hard time pronouncing the therapy that Joon had used for his shoulder.
“Proliferation therapy,” she interjected. “Yes, I am familiar with the procedure. I did consider that as an option, but it hadn’t been substantiated before and I thought he would need something a bit more guaranteed.”
And there it was again, the professional tone I had come to associate with her. She sounded just like she did the first time we met, all cool and efficient. The effect was instantaneous, and I wanted nothing more than to ruffle her up more than just a little bit, just to see how she would react. But… How to do it?
I was thinking about this so hard that I missed the fact that she had again grown silent before she resumed her conversation, this time talking about things I have absolutely no idea about. Something about physical therapy and foods high in protein. I continued listening, the words not quite registering, only too happy to listen to her speak. Her voice seemed familiar to me somewhat, yet still deliciously foreign. She didn’t speak like any other American I had met in San Francisco, her accent, instead, reminding me of the time I spent in New York City while I was in uni. And yet, it still couldn’t be pinpointed to that exact region, either. The minute she launched into another subject, this time about medications that Joon should and should not use, I found myself chuckling almost involuntarily, wondering if any other woman could sound so attractive talking about such inane topics. I thought I was chuckling very quietly until she paused mid-sentence, and I forced myself to stop.
“What?” She asked, her tone not quite masking her irritation.
“Nothing,” I replied, attempting to sound more serious. “Nothing. I wish you would keep talking. I like your voice.” I blushed when I realized that I just blurted out what I was thinking without any thought. It happened to be true, of course, but that didn’t make me feel any less embarrassed.
Rather than give in to my request she stopped speaking altogether before muttering a soft “Erm… Thank you”. It seemed as if she was still looking for the right words to say and I was pleased to finally have the opportunity to talk about something else more interesting, namely me or her, or even better, me and her, when I heard her voice again. “Anyway, I just wanted to let you know that I’m glad everything worked out.”
“Me too.”I tamped down on the abject disappointment that I felt in realizing that she just called for this. “Well… If that’s all you wanted to know…”
“IT WASN’T ME!” She suddenly said, her words in a rush, making the sentence sound like it was all one word.
“What wasn’t you?” I asked, confused now. I didn’t think I missed any part of the conversation at all, but maybe I was wrong.
“The person you were talking to, texting with, whatever…” she said quickly, and I detected an undercurrent of nerves. “It wasn’t me.”
“I don’t understand.”
“The thing is,” she started. “The thing is… My sister was here the first evening you texted, and I think she may have texted you back.”
“Did she? Text you back?”
“You texted me back,” I said. “You did. The texts that came that day and the days that followed came from your number.”
“No… That’s what I’m saying,” she said. “She sent you texts from my… Hold on, did you say that day and the days that followed?” She emphasized the word days and I guessed she hadn’t checked her phone bill. If she had, she would have realized that the text was not a single event but one of many. “It doesn’t matter, anyway. She sent you texts from my phone.”
“Why would she do that?” I asked, genuinely confounded.
“I’m not really sure,” she admitted. “Well, actually, I know why but I’m not telling you. Whatever the case may be, please disregard everything she said. And I apologize.”
“There’s nothing to apologize for,” I said, resigned. Though I was relieved that I hadn’t been going crazy thinking that she seemed more like two different people, the idea that had her sister not, in fact, contacted me, that she would not have herself left me deflated.
“I’m apologizing for the phone call.”
“Which phone call?” I asked, even though i knew full well which phone call she was talking about. “Didn’t you say the whole thing wasn’t you?”
“There’s a big probability I had made a phone call one night. You have to excuse me… I was drunk and I thought you were someone else.”
“It’s fine… You have permission to call me every time you’re drunk, whether intentional or accidental,” I said, my voice curt, effectively deflecting the conversation away from who she thought she was calling. I knew full well who she thought she was calling and the reminder made me tense up. “Anyway, please give your sister my thanks. She was very friendly.”
“She has a boyfriend,” she said, almost protectively.
“Okay?” I said, not quite getting why she felt the need to share that morsel of information. I thought about it for a few minutes and when I realized what she had been implying, I felt genuinely offended. The pool of women that I was exposed to was not so limited that I’ve ever had to resort to going after sisters. That she would think me capable of such behavior might have left me feeling flattered anytime before now, but not anymore. Her judgment of me, though not entirely unfounded, was severe and I felt the blow acutely. All of a sudden I was exhausted and wanted to tell her so.
“Uhmm,” she said, her voice hesitant. “This is going to sound weird, but have you been sending me things? Like medication and food? And maybe some chocolates, too?”
Torn between wanting myself to look good in her eyes but not wanting her to realize I was doing so, I dawdled on my response.
“It’s just.. Well, I didn’t think you had my address and they were sent directly to the house and my work. I thought it was Joon-ie that sent it because that’s the kind of thing…”
“It was me.”
The mention of her Joon, even casually, riled me up quickly. He doesn’t get to take credit for what I did. Impulsively I opened my laptop and went straight to AOL. I was about to type his name to see what results will come up when I realized that I didn’t even know his last name. Then I typed in Joon and pressed enter, only to have the trending results all referring to my Joon. This is impossible. And here my parents said the Internet knew everything. Not quite so.
“… but the medication was appreciated and so was the food. That rice porridge was delicious and I’ve never had it before, and I never even knew that they served that at any of the Korean restaurants around me. The chocolates were a bit much, though, but it’s not unlike Joon to buy that kind of thing for me, so I really thought…”
“It was me,” I repeated, a little more forcefully than I had intended. “Your friend Joon had nothing to do with this. You were so drunk that night you called that I knew you were bound to wake up with a headache, and that restaurant is one I frequent whenever I am in San Francisco. The chocolates came highly recommended, so I thought you would like it.”
“Oh,” she said. “Okay.”
“Though… I don’t know how you would even know about those chocolates when I was told that you gave it all away.”
“What’s the purpose of having something good when you can’t share it with other people?” she asked. I didn’t know the answer to that question. Sharing wasn’t exactly my forte. “You didn’t have to do that… I’m sure I could have bought it my…”
A gift is a gift for a reason… Not really wanting to hear any more about how she could have bought it herself, I quickly interrupted her. “Did you… Did you at least like the flowers?”
“I loved them,” she said quietly. “They were beautiful.”
“I was told you also gave them away.”
“I’m not very good with living things,” she admitted almost sheepishly and I narrowed my eyes.
“But you’re a nurse.” What did that mean she wasn’t good with live things? She makes a living taking care of live things.
“That’s different,” she said, blowing a breath.
All at once I wondered if her hair was up or down, whether she was dressed up or in pajamas, whether she was sitting in the living room or at a party speaking in the bathroom, or in her parents house in her old room. Suddenly I wanted to know how she looked right now, whether the picture I had in my head was anywhere near what she looked like at this moment. The fact that she had outwardly refused to keep everything and anything I had ever given her didn’t matter. I just wanted to see her, and not from a distance. I wanted to see her face as she spoke, to match that lovely voice to a face that I couldn’t seem to forget, though I was still quite unsure why.
The recognition that my interest had not ebbed any despite her very obvious dismissal of my offer to take her out the last time I asked left me feeling a bit out of sorts… But despite my earlier anxiety about this very same thing, it seemed that I was getting used to it now, since this time the understanding didn’t leave me feeling suffocated. My mind is as clear as it was before I realized just how interested I still was, and just now it hit me that when I asked her to go out with me via text, she didn’t refuse. Her sister, maybe anticipating how she would respond and trying to lend an air of authenticity so as to throw me off course from her own identity, did. Her sister refused, not her. If I brought this up now, surely she will have to concede that she can’t turn down an offer to a date via proxy. That is reasonable. She seemed like a reasonable human being. Surely she would see the sense in what I was about to negotiate over.
“I just meant that living things, besides people, are not my strong suit,” she explained.
By the time I zoned back into the conversation, it appeared that she was still talking about the flowers. I stood up and sat down by the kitchen table, the food I had so carefully prepared still untouched. I turned the television in the kitchen on, the voices coming from them making me feel not so alone. With that and her voice on the phone, I felt more content than I had felt in a long time.
“Because with the people I take care of,” she continued. “The relationship I share with them is very limited. It’s a very short term relationship, not one that needed to be nourished all the time, just when they’re in my care. They’re at the hospital for a few days, maybe a few weeks, at most, then they…”
“Die?” I finished helpfully and immediately regretted it as soon as the words came out of my mouth. The moment it hit me that I just actually said that out loud I wondered what the hell was wrong with me and resisted the urge to bang my head against the table.
For someone used to watching his words whenever he spoke, for someone who got paid because of his public relations skill, I had made myself an expert in navigating human communication. I was the master at knowing what to say and what not to say, of editing and candy coating words to make them appear better than they actually were. For as long as I can remember, I never had difficulties with this, and my reputation had depended on it. That this woman constantly threw me in a loop was disconcerting, to say the least. And she, as far as I could tell, was also surprised, maybe even upset. I wasn’t quite sure either, since the woman I thought I had sussed out turned out not to be the woman I was talking to at all.
“I was going to say get discharged though I suppose there is an element of that as well, unfortunately,” she said after a few minutes of silence. “I’ll let you go. I’m sure you had other plans today besides talking to me on the phone. I, too, have other people waiting for me to be finished with my call.”
“Ah…” I said, suddenly not wanting to end this conversation there, wanting to prove that I actually had more sense than how I sounded just now.
“Merry Christmas, by the way.”
The phone clicked and I knew that she had already hung up without even waiting for a response. This woman just does whatever without any thought to how anyone else felt about it. I can’t stand people who do that.
“Die? Why did I say die?” I said disbelievingly, convinced that it was this that made her hang up so quickly. I don’t know what possessed me to even say that word so casually to someone whose job was to keep people alive. “Of all words!!! DIE?!?!?!”
I banged my head on the table once, then twice. I was about to bang my head once more when I realized one other thing… She had called me this time, even after realizing that her sister had texted with me before, which means that she may not have meant to keep my number, but it was still in her phone. That told me that she had knowingly kept it there, for reasons beyond my understanding and maybe, even hers. But had she been as unaffected by me as she tried to make herself out to be, she just would have erased it. There was nothing tying either one of us to each other, no reason for us to deal with each other ever again, unless it was by choice. The wheels were turning inside my head as I came to the only conclusion I could derive from this scenario, smiling when I realized that I still had a chance. I placed a kiss on the only thing I could right now, that being a bottle of soju.
I started eating my dinner, turning the television to full volume, filling the apartment with sounds and noises, much like how every holiday was when shared with my family. Rather than being angry at her hanging up on me, or calling her to demand an explanation an apology, now I was left more with a feeling of disappointment, that she had ended the phone call before I even had the chance to ask her what she was doing for New Year’s Eve.
Maybe that was a good thing, I thought… A blessing in disguise. If I never had the chance to ask, she didn’t have a chance to refuse. If she had just let me actually ask again, she could have definitively said no for real. But she didn’t. Feeling hopeful again that she may be softening, I carried on happily eating my dinner, smiling to myself.
I knew there was a reason I stayed.
I looked at the microwave meal still in front of me, waiting to be eaten, becoming less and less appetizing by the minute, if that was possible, the chocolate bar I had been saving for dessert long gone. I started picking at it while waiting for him to pick up the phone then ended up practically shoving the whole thing in my mouth due to my nervousness when he actually picked up.
I had known it was time to get off the phone when I started hearing voices in the background from his end of the line, as if he had just walked into a room or walked into a bar, reinforcing further that other people normally had others with them on a day as important as today. Surely there was no one else who would be alone at this time, not like I was. My solitude never really bothered me as I had always seen it as an opportunity to know myself better, to treat myself better, but it did today. I supposed it hadn’t been until recently that I realized just how lonely a person can be. Even surrounded by people I still carried the weight of loneliness, and it made me self-conscious, as if people can see it and use it against me. Even so, I knew that that the holiday season will soon pass and I… Will be okay.
The New Year will come soon, and along with it comes an opportunity for growth, an opportunity for change, an opportunity to start again. Maybe this time I will be really be able to put the past behind me and finally find the courage to try everything again.
I started picking on the food in front of me, chugging down a swallow of wine after every bite, careful not to overdo it with the drinking this time. It wasn’t until I was almost done that I realized that I failed to do what I had set out to do in the first place when I called him. I still haven’t thanked him for the flowers, or anything else. I also forgot to ask what exactly I told him on the night when I actually did call him. Oh well, I thought, if it was important he would have told me. I opened the phone and scrolled to his name, tempted to text him just to express my gratitude when I realized that he might see that as an open invitation and decided against it. Afraid to tempt the fates even more, my finger hovered over his number for just a second before I pressed the button and deleted it without a second thought.
That conversation had been painfully awkward, more than a little interesting, and surprising all at the same time. He sounded like a real person, not one who routinely broke hearts, as I had previously ascertained. Perhaps I was wrong… I admitted to myself silently. Being judgmental had always been one of my fatal flaws. I acknowledged this over the last few years even as I made every attempt to be more open-minded, unsuccessfully, or so it would seem. It was something that I had been criticized for previously, though I didn’t really see why. I had always been a person who trusted my instinct, and my instinct told me that the man was trouble. I wasn’t quite sure yet exactly how much or what kind of trouble he was going to bring my way, only that he was.
I was more than capable of attracting trouble on my own, without anyone else bringing to me. I had no room in my life for more of it, nor did I feel any inclination to make room, and much less for a man who had it written all over his face.
UCSF Medical Center
December 31, 2001
“You’d never guess what I brought you,” I told Teddy after I knocked once and then walked into his room. He was sitting up in bed, watching television, and he turned to me and smiled, his hearing aid and dentures in place.
“Whiskey?” He asked and I sent a narrowed glance his way. “Champagne, at least. It’s New Year’s Eve!”
“Are you trying to get me fired?” I retorted back. “Because I will be if Dr. Akhtar hears that I’ve been bringing you stuff and especially if I brought you contraband. Next you’ll be asking me to take you out for a cigarette.” I reached into my purse and lifted a brown bag before putting it in front of him. “Ta-da!” I presented the offering with a flourish then watched as a gleam of pleasure came over his eyes.
“Polly Ann’s?” He asked and I nodded. “My favorite.”
“Are you happy?” I asked and he nodded. “As you should… I had to go all the way to Noriega to get it for you.”
“You’re still in your scrubs,” he noted, pointing at my uniform. “I thought Jeremiah said you were getting canceled tonight.”
“I had already left the house to get you the milkshake when they called me,” I said. I had taken Christmas Eve off, and therefore was mandated to work New Year’s Eve. With my avoidance of the holiday anyway, it was a rare occasion that I had signed up for the night shift. However, with the amount of overtime I pulled on a weekly basis, I was always the first to be called off when the census falls, as it did tonight.
“Any plans for tonight?” He asked, picking the cherry out of the whipped cream before pushing a bright red straw into his drink.
“I was supposed to work….”
“You work too much. You’re only young once… You should enjoy yourself while you can,” he said, taking a big sip of his milkshake as his eyes closed in pleasure.
“Teddy… I’m hardly young now,” I said. “I’m almost thirty three… I’ll be promoted to the next check box pretty soon.”
“You know,” I continued, pulling the chair closer to his bed. “When you fill out a survey… They have these tick boxes with ages. I am knocking on the far side of thirty two and in three years I will move on up to the 35 to 39 range.”
“It’s so easy to joke about it when you have so many years left,” he complained and I laughed. Teddy had never made any bones about resenting getting older, especially in the last couple of years.
“You know,” I started, “you pretty much said the same exact thing word for word last year, and the year before. ”
“That’s because you never listen to me.”
“So you say.” He turned to me with his observant eyes. “Hey… What happened to that little girl that you were training on New Year’s Eve last year? I hadn’t seen her at all since I came back. What was her name? Ellen? Anne?”
“Alyson,” I answered. “She got married not too long after. She just had her baby a few weeks ago. She’s still on maternity leave.”
“Ah,” he said, nodding. “And that Jeremiah just got married as well, right?”
I looked at him laughingly. “Do you make it your business to know everyone else’s? Are you sure you’re sick and not just here to keep tabs on us?”
“We’ve all spent the holidays together the last four years. And you guys bring me food. In my books, that makes you family,” he answered dismissively. “And you… When are you going to find yourself a nice man and settle down?”
“Teddy, don’t start,” I warned. “You did this last year too.”
“That’s because you were single then, too, with no prospects in sight,” he answered smartly. “The first year you took care of me the men you were meeting were either too young, too old, too rich, no job. They were always too everything. Don’t think I haven’t noticed that the last three years you’ve just stopped talking about it altogether. The number of days you work have increased as well.”
“Wow, no one can put anything past you,” I teased.
“I may be old, but I’m not senile. Is it wrong of me to want to see you settled and happy before I die?”
“Teddy,” I protested. “You’re not dying.”
“Don’t fool yourself, my girl,” he said softly, looking up and meeting my eyes. “We’re all dying. Some of us just more quickly than others, and others in ways that no one else can see.”
He sounded so serious I was a bit concerned that something might be going on, then dismissed it. His heart may not be functioning well, but his labs and his vital signs remained stable. He’s fine.
He kept drinking his milkshake quietly for a few minutes while watching television. He appeared as if he wasn’t paying attention to me at all except I could feel his eyes side eyeing me every once in a while. With a marked sigh he lifted his call bell and turned the television off, then motioned for me to sit closer to him. I reluctantly pushed my chair until I was right next to his bed, then he took my hand.
“It’s because of your father, right?” He asked gently and I met his gaze in surprise. His kind eyes searched my face, and I felt something inside me tighten. “You used to tell me a lot about your mother and sister but never your father.”
“It’s not that,” I said, trying my best to sound nonplussed.
“I’ve known you for five years. You’ve taken care of me for months at a time, and yet I never hear you speak about anyone special in your life, about falling in love. You might say those things don’t belong in casual conversation with a patient, but you should know that everyone else does. Everyone else had. Except for you. That’s the thing about being in love sometimes, and being happy. Your life fills to the brim with joy and it can’t help but overflow.”
He paused for a few minutes, as if waiting for me to say something, but I stayed silent, unable to say a word.
“A father… is the first man you’ll know, the first one you’ll love. You have a good one and he will forever be the standard against which you will compare every other man you will ever meet,” he continued. “You get a not so good one and you will find yourself always either searching for what he never gave you, or running away from the memory of him.”
“My father is not a bad man,” I said quietly. “He’s just a weak man. Everything wrong that he did stemmed from that.” The lying, the cheating, the betrayal. It all came from that part of him who could never be content with what he had, what he had been given. He was a product of an overly indulgent mother who gave in to his every whim and an absent father, a philanderer himself. “But that’s besides the point. My parents’ relationship has nothing to do with my inability to connect with another human being on a closer level.”
“Of course it does. A family’s dynamic affects all its members, whether directly or indirectly. Your parents are the ones who are supposed to teach you about love and how it’s supposed to be, by word and more importantly, by example. Of course it matters. Everything does.”
I tried to pull my hand away and looked for an excuse to leave, aware that this conversation was hitting a little closer to home than I’d like. His grasp stayed surprisingly firm, his fingers locked onto my palm. I will never look at his fingers again and think them frail. Never.
“It’s not just my father,” I blurted out, aware that unless I told him what he wanted to hear, he will never let me out of his room. “I’ve been in relationships before. Loving relationships. They just never lasted. I’m not good with the sustaining part. It’s okay,” I tried to reassure him. “It’s okay.”
“When people get disappointed enough times, they teach themselves never to hope again,” he said. “When people get hurt enough times, they know better than to try again, with the knowledge that if they don’t try they won’t fail. They don’t fail, they won’t get hurt. Human beings are programmed as such. It is both the gift and curse of evolution.”
He kept his eyes glued onto my face and the way he was looking at me made me squirm. He was studying me, saying nothing, his hand still holding mine. I felt exposed and vulnerable, uncomfortable with revealing so much of myself and my history, cognizant of the fact that I was only able to do so because though he was a friend, he was also my patient. Caught in between being someone familiar and being a stranger, he was still distant enough that this conversation didn’t have to mean much and I can forget it happened as soon as I leave his room.
“Are you saying that I’m a highly evolved human being?” I asked, my tone light, trying to change the tone of our discussion. This was hardly the conversation I wanted to get into tonight, what with my emotions already rubbed raw from recent events and the holidays. “I’m flattered.”
He appeared to be searching for the right words to say, so before he could launch into another serious discussion about yet another topic I didn’t want to speak of, I stood up and pulled my hand out of his. I made a show of collecting my jacket and my purse, making it very clear that I was about to leave. I had just shrugged myself back into my jacket when I felt his hand grab mine once more, his eyes veiled.
“Teddy, I have to go, ” I said. “It is New Year’s Eve, you know. I do have plans.”
“I’ll see you in a couple of days, when I come back to work.”
“Happy New Year, Mr. Feldman,” I said, leaving down and pressing a kiss on his cheek. “Make sure you to call your kids later. I’ll tell JB to tell your night nurse to give you your Ambien a little later so you can watch the fireworks on tv.”
I bolted out of the room before he could say any more, breathing a sigh of relief as soon as he was out of sight. I gave myself a mental reminder to call his physician the next time I’m working to ask for a psych consult. Teddy had, in the last few years, been occasionally maudlin and melancholy, no doubt a result from prolonged hospitalizations and his diagnosis. But I’ve never heard him like that before. Unwilling to actually examine what we just spoke about, I chose to worry about him instead, my mind automatically taking over to do what it’s always done.
I checked my watch as I was exiting the unit, trying to avoid being seen by my co-workers, knowing that they would only ask me what my plans were for my unexpected night off. I could lie like I did with Teddy and pretend that I had made alternate plans, but I know they’d ask for details then figure out that I had done no such thing. I’d rather escape the interrogation, and walked briskly out of the double doors.
I took the elevator to the main lobby of the hospital and then walked out, clutching my jacket more closely around me as I waited for the bus to come that would take me home. The bus stop was full of young people, already dressed up for tonight’s festivities.
The couple standing next to me started making out and I averted my eyes, grateful when the bus arrived. For a second I tried to remember how it felt to be that young and carefree, and I couldn’t recall even the feeling or the memory. I climbed up the steps quickly, then took one of the seats at the very back. The bus lurched forward and I leaned back on my seat, forcing myself to relax, wondering why I could not.
It’s just because it’s New Year’s, I told myself. Tomorrow it will be better, you’ll see.
I kept repeating this to myself as the hospital disappeared from view, my heart hoping and wishing that it will be just so come morning, unwilling to entertain the idea that these feelings of isolation may be here to stay.
I entered Junnie’s loft with the bagful of goodies I picked up at the Bow K on 4th street, my food for tonight, my purse slung on one shoulder. I placed the bag of cheez curls and marshmallows on the counter, along with a bag of peeled apples, a hunk of soft cheese, a pint of Ben and Jerry’s half baked ice cream and a bottle of white wine. I also had a small container of Chef Boyardee and a tin of Vienna sausages. I’ve outdone myself tonight. I had a feast in my hands, and Junnie would be proud.
I placed some apple slices onto a paper bowl and poured some wine into a paper cup then walked to the living room, debating whether to call my best friend. It’s noon in Singapore, but I had no doubt that Junnie would be sleeping in after going out for New Year’s Eve. It’s not often she had the opportunity to let loose with her high stress job, and even rarer that she was able to sleep in, so I just decided to text her instead.
I grabbed my purse and pulled out my phone, only to realize that it was off. I quickly powered it on, figuring that it must have been off since the last time I saw it, which was yesterday night. With me having been scheduled to work night shift tonight I felt no need to set it as my alarm clock last night, therefore hadn’t noticed that it had been powered off all day.
I was typing out a quick message to Junnie when the phone rang in my hand. I was surprised to see my sister’s name pop up, seeing as she had been avoiding my phone calls for days. She didn’t even call me on Christmas Day, the first time she didn’t since I had moved away from home, and I was still sore about that, along with other things. I debated for a few seconds whether to give her a taste of her own medicine, when I realized that if I didn’t answer now, this issue will never be resolved.
I had never been one to be intimidated by confrontation. It’s now or never… She and I will have to talk about it at some point, or never speak of it at all. The second thought was tempting, but… For as long as I can remember I’ve always stressed the value of an honest discussion with my sister. I’ve always encouraged her to be open about what she felt, and never failed to emphasize that misunderstandings arise because people don’t talk about things they know damn well they should be talking about. If I avoided speaking to her, I would not be setting a good example. And my pride was not worth that much.
I quickly pressed the call button but didn’t say anything, waiting for her to speak first.
“Sis… I’ve been calling you all day!” She said, her voice cheerful, as she was prone to do when she was nervous. “Are you still mad at me?” Not even waiting for a response, she carried on speaking. “Happy New year! And belated merry Christmas too!” I stayed quiet and waited for her to finish, and I supposed that she had only gotten more nervous since she said, “Since you’re not speaking, I’m going to go. ‘Kayiloveyouby-”
“Oh no, you don’t, ” I said, finally. “You think you’re just going to greet me and tick that off your list so you can feel better about not calling me for Christmas? Or are you trying to make yourself feel better for meddling with my love life?”
“What love life?” She asked. “That’s the problem… You don’t have one of them.”
“Mar… ” I started, realizing now that today will be the day of familiar discussions. First, Teddy. And now my sister. If Junnie was awake I had no doubt that she’d be speaking about the same thing as well. “I have a love life. It’s just on hold at the minute.” She said nothing in response. “Seriously, Maria… What were you thinking? What could have possessed you to text with him? I thought you just saved his number.”
“I was thinking that he looked like someone worth getting to know!” she said, defiant. “He’s handsome…”
“He’s not the first handsome man I’ve met, Maria, nor is he even the most handsome man I’d ever met.”
She huffed before continuing. “He’s rich…”
“As if that ever mattered to me…”
“How can you know that when you were speaking to him via text? Even murderers and serial killers probably sound nice via text. Didn’t I teach you not to be so trusting?”
“Are you saying he’s a serial killer?”
I sighed. “No, Maria… I’m sure he’s not a serial killer… All I’m saying is that you can’t know how someone is until you deal with them directly.”
“Which, if you were left to your own devices, you would never do,” she said. “I forgot the most important part… He’s interested! Really really interested in you!”
“You don’t know that.”
“Just because I’m younger and less experienced than you in these matters that doesn’t mean that I’m not perceptive. I’m the one who’s been texting with him. I’m the one he was interrogating about you for days. I think I of all people would know if he was or he was not interested,” she said, then in a much smaller voice, “I just want you to be happy.”
“Your intentions were good,” I said, trying to will my voice to be gentle. “But I’m perfectly capable of finding myself a man, if that was what I wanted. I am fine.”
There was silence on the line before she spoke again. “You’re functional, not fine. It’s been five years since you were in a relationship!”
“I know how many years it’s been Maria…”
“You’re the best sister in the world, the best friend. You’re an amazing nurse, and a wonderful person. You deserve love too! You deserve love more than anyone else I know!” Her voice had risen to an almost yell and I could tell that this was no attempt at emotional manipulation. My sister had used her wiles on me in the past, accompanied by tears, but never had she sounded this angry. Looking for a way to appease her, I was still searching for the right response when she continued her tirade. “All the sacrifices you’ve made over the years, all the compromises. Your hard work. You’ve given so much of yourself away without ever taking anything just for you. Was it so wrong of me to want someone good for you? Was it wrong of me to want to see you with someone who adores you?”
“No, that wasn’t wrong… But this is not the way to get your point across.”
“There was no other way!” She said. “I’ve kept my mouth shut for five years, hoping that you would just bounce back like you always did. I was determined not to butt in, but I’ve had enough. It’s not fair!”
“What’s not fair?”
“Marcus, Andrew, Chris… They’ve all moved on. Men who have hurt you… They’ve all moved forward in their lives as if they didn’t break your heart. And you… You’re stuck. Unable to let go. Unable to move on. You’re still paying the price of loving them too much and they’ve forgotten you. It’s not fair.”
“Life’s not always fair, Maria… And I have also moved on. I know it doesn’t seem like it, but…”
“You’re still living from boxes and sleeping in a sleeping bag.” I knew that she had known about my unwillingness to unpack my belongings no matter where I went, but I didn’t realize that she knew about my strange sleeping habits. “You didn’t know, right? That I knew? To this day I still wouldn’t have known except you haven’t gotten a chance to pack your sleeping bag away before I could see it when I visited you. You tell me everything, but you never told me that.”
“I didn’t want to worry you,” I said, resignation creeping into my voice. “I’m working on it…”
“No, you’re not. I think you’ve convinced yourself that you’re fine… That you’re over it, but you’re not. You’re still blaming yourself for what happened! Chris has three kids! Three kids!” She blurted out. “That fucking guy who cheated on you two months before your wedding has three kids!”
It took a moment for her words to register, even longer still for my mind and my heart to process it. “He has three kids?” I asked softly. A slight pain started in the center of my chest… Small enough to dismiss, but still painful nevertheless.
“Yeah,” she responded, her voice small, sounding so young to my ears all of a sudden. “I love you. You have to start somewhere. All I’m asking is to give him a chance. Please. Give yourself a chance.” She said her last sentence in such a way that it sounded like a plea before she began to cry and I instantly softened. I put a hand over my heart to rub some of the ache away, the source of which I couldn’t pinpoint. Whether it was from the tidbit she just shared or from the sorrow I’d so obviously caused her without my knowing it, I wasn’t quite sure.
“Okay,” I said, my voice tired. A pounding started on my temples and I squeezed the bridge if my nose to ease some of the pressure away. “I’ll try.”
“You promise?” She asked, sniffling.
Alchemist Bar and Lounge
The brick walls were subdued, the wooden beams in the open floor space, breaking the line of vision to the door. There were couches set against the walls, on either side of the bar, with stocky, rustic tables in front. There was a chalkboard with the daily specials on one side of the room, framed by heavily scrolled metal. A small area overlooked the U-shaped bar lit by hanging acorn shaped light fixtures, with square leather ottomans for seating.The space was both homey, industrial and simple, and had always been one of my favorites since I discovered it a year ago.
I was sitting on one end of the bar, perched on a stool, dressed in a black suit with a white shirt, the top unbuttoned, watching as revelers started making their way into the bar. Everyone had smiles on their faces, some were already openly tipsy, and I deduced that this must just be one of several stops at a bar crawl, an all too common event for young people on nights like tonight, and I myself had done when I was younger and living the life in America. I had been at my apartment just an hour before, thinking about what to do for tonight when I realized there was no reason for me to be staying home when the rest of San Francisco was out celebrating. And the whole city was alive, holding its breath for the new year coming, waiting for midnight to arrive. There was joy palpable in the air, a rush of anticipation.
Looking at my scotch, I fondly recalled New Year’s Eve three years ago, on a night out with Shawn. I had found myself separated from our group of people, having gone to the bathroom just as the clock was about to strike midnight, only to find myself kissing a woman I didn’t know in the dark. I wasn’t even sure how it had happened… One minute I was craning my neck looking for my friends, then the next I had been pushed against the wall, soft lips on mine. And just like Cinderella, by the time the lights had come on and I had regained my faculties, she was gone. How strange. Americans really are something else, I thought, as I downed the rest of my drink.
I had just motioned for another drink when the phone inside my suit pocket vibrated. One glance at the screen told me it was Joon, calling from Korea. It was already New Year’s Day in Seoul, fifteen hours ahead. I had sent him a message this morning when the clock struck midnight there, to no response, but I wasn’t surprised. I was sure that he had been busy celebrating his proposal, which I had no doubt Na Jeong accepted. That the once isolated Joon was now surrounded by people who loved and cared for him, and without me, at that, would have made me a little envious if not for the fact that I was so happy for him.
Quickly telling the bartender to forget my drink and depositing a fifty dollar bill on the counter, I opened my phone to answer as I stepped outside the front door, wrapping my scarf more tightly around my neck, a pair of buckskin gloves already on my hands.
“Joon-ah,” I greeted. “Why are you calling me at this time? Is everything okay?”
“I didn’t want to forget to call you before New Year’s hits over there… Na Jeong and I were getting ready to go to the boarding house since everyone is going to be there today,” he replied.
“You’re just getting up now?’ I asked. “Lazy git. How did your proposal go?”
“She said yes,” he said happily, and I could almost imagine his smiling face.
“Hi, Jin-ie Oppa,” I heard Na Jeong say in the background.
“Yah…” Joon said, not directed at me, his voice annoyed.
I resisted a chuckle as I heard them bickering in the background. Already like an old married couple. This will never get old, and I knew it when I told her to call me that to begin with, as evidenced by the morning that Na Jeong was in San Francisco, when Joon almost had a full on temper tantrum upon hearing her call me Oppa for the first time.
“Did you guys just wake up?” I repeated, trying to turn the attention back to the phone call.
“We were up a few hours ago, but, uhmm… We got distracted,” he said sheepishly. “I needed to rest anyway… I got a little drunk last night. Na Jeong was not pleased.”
“What have I advised you many times before?” I asked. “Gentlemen don’t get drunk… They get-”
“Tipsy,” he finished for me. “I got it. But we were already at home, our friends were over, we just got engaged… I think that deserves a free pass. I mean… How often can I do that without the watchful eyes of my manager?”
“I’ll let it go… This time.”
I heard him chuckle before he spoke again. “What are your plans tonight? It’s only 10:30 p.m. there, right? Are you getting together with Noonim?”
“I told you to stop calling her that,” I reminded him, trying to curb my irritation. I haven’t heard from Gia again since Christmas night. Not one word. Not a hello. Not even a “don’t talk to me again”. Just complete silence. “I was going to try to get together with her, but when I called her handphone she didn’t answer, and when I called her job to ask her directly, they told me that she was working tonight instead. So no, it looks like it’ll be a bust for me tonight.”
“Hyung,” Joon said impatiently. “How are you going to expect things to be different when you keep on doing things the same way? Sure, you’d sent her flowers and chocolates, but you’ve done that for every other woman you’ve ever met before, though maybe not on as grand a scale as you had with her. This time, be creative.”
“What do you mean?” I asked. “I just told you… She’s working.”
“And it’s not like you know where she works, right?” he asked, sarcastic. “And it’s not as if nurses take breaks at work, right?” When I didn’t respond, he continued prying. “And you don’t have a car or anything, right? And…”
“I got it… I got it,” i said. “You can stop now.”
“I’m just saying… If Na Jeong and I hadn’t done things a little differently a couple of years ago, we wouldn’t be where we are now. So take it from me… Sometimes, you need to think outside the box.”
I searched my mind for what options I had, what excuses I’ll make as to how I found myself in the hospital on a night like tonight. I thought about what to bring… It’s not as if I can bring a nurse alcohol while she’s working. I can’t give her any more stuff that she will just give away.
“Hyung?” I heard Joon say. “Are you still there? The line had gone silent.”
“Yeah… I’m here,” I said. “But listen, Joon-ah,” I looked at my watch. “If I’m going to get something together, I would have to go now. It’s already almost 11 o’clock, and I still have no clue what I’m doing.”
“It doesn’t have to be extravagant,” Joon said. “It’s the thought that counts. Any other woman would be happy with that.”
“She’s not every other woman,” I said. “I have to go.”
“I’ll call you tomorrow, Hyung, Are you still coming back in a couple of days?”
“Yes, my flight’s already booked. I have a couple of meetings set up with some of your CF people. We have a lot to discuss when I get back.”
“I got it,” he replied. “Happy New Year, Hyung.”
“Congratulations, Joon-ah… Give Na Jeong a hug for me. And give my regards to her parents.”
I closed the phone and reanalyzed my plan of attack. I was a man given to doing things in measured and calculated ways. Spontaneity is not something I do well, and I’ve learned that a clear, concise plan ensured success. I started walking towards 4th street, then impulsively entered a convenience store, determined to see what offerings were available to me. I walked through the aisles and dismissed the bags of junk food and candy bars. I walked to the refrigerated area and perused its contents. No such luck, either. I can’t bring her any beer or wine.
I was turning to go down the aisle a second time when I saw a display tucked in one corner of the store. Walking towards it, I saw that it was bottles of apple cider, fancily disguised to look like it’s in a champagne bottle. And conveniently, right next to it, on a shelf, were a half a dozen boxes of sparklers. I picked up a bottle of the beverage and all the sparklers, wondering if I had gone insane, then reiterating to myself the logic in my plan. Apple cider is non-alcoholic, therefore safe for consumption at work, and even if we can’t light the sparklers right at midnight, she can take them home and light them after work. Surely she would appreciate the intent.
I opened my phone again as I crossed the street, scrolling down to find her work number. I waited until someone had answered and then spoke.
“Good evening,” I said, trying to keep the excitement out of my voice, forcing myself to stay calm. “May I speak to Gia, please?”
“Gia?’ The voice asked. “Ahh, Gigi. She was canceled tonight.”
“What does that mean?” I asked. “Canceled?”
“She was flexed,” the voice explained. “The hospital didn’t need her so she was given the night off.”
“Oh, okay,” I said, looking dejectedly at the bottle I held under an arm. Dammit. Will things never ever work out for me when it came to this woman? An idea popped up in my head and I quickly dismissed it, certain that she must already have plans for the night. But… It’s nowhere near midnight yet, and I was only a few minutes away from her home. If I went there quickly, I may catch her before she even leaves the house. I shook at my head at myself, trying to push the idea way, thinking it a bit radical and just a little stalkerish. But then Joon’s voice echoed in my head.
Be creative, Think outside the box.
My mind made up, I quickly walked to my car before getting in it. I smiled as I turned the key on the ignition, now convinced that I was doing the right thing, psyching myself up for the first time she and I will see each other, officially, since Joon’s hospitalization. Looking forward to seeing her outside her work, I wondered if she will be all made up when she opens the door,
The element of the unexpected will take her by surprise, and I was anticipating her reaction. I mean… What was the worst that can happen? She may close the door on my face. But then again, she may just ask me to stay. The possibility of that second option was enough to forge me ahead with my newly organized plan. I whistled as I drove past the young people in the streets, my heart already racing at the thought of seeing her again.
Three kids, I thought, shoving a spoonful of ice cream in my mouth. Actually, I had run out of plastic spoons so I just used a ladle instead. Even the chewy bits of brownies and chocolate chips in the ice cream that I so loved failed to put a smile on my face. Three kids.
I blew on the hair that had fallen out of the the bun on the top of my head and put the ice cream on a window ledge before reaching for the bottle of wine on the floor next to the tub. I drank straight from the bottle before putting it back down. I was covered neck to feet in bubbles, my painted toenails just peeking out at one end.
Three kids. But…
Five years before…
“I don’t want kids,” Chris said out of the blue as we drove off from my parents’ house back to my apartment.
“What?” I asked. “I thought you said you weren’t sure about having them, not that you didn’t want them. That’s what you said when we first met.”
His hold on the steering wheel tightened, his gaze focused entirely on the road ahead. He didn’t look at me as we were stopped by a stoplight, as he normally would have done. He clenched his jaw instead, and I tried to stay calm even as warning lights were going off in my head.
“I made up my mind,” he said. “I definitely don’t want kids. You said yourself when we first met… That you weren’t sure you wanted them either.”
“I still don’t know…” I said. And I didn’t, which is why it made absolutely no sense that the thought of that option being forever taken away from me made me sad in a lot of ways.
“We can talk about this later,” he said.
I wanted to talk about it then… Right then and there, but I stayed quiet instead. Neither of us said any more until we were at the parking lot to my apartment. Of all the times for him to actually step up and make a decision about something… it had to be now. It had to be about this.
“If you don’t want kids, then we should probably not go through with the wedding,” I said, my voice shaky. “You should have told me that you’ve decided.”
“Why did I need to?” He asked. “We’re great together. You’re educated and pretty. We get along well. “
I said nothing but stayed looking out of the windows, even as he took one of my hands. The words he said were jumbled in my head, and I didn’t have enough time to try to disentangle them from one another. He’s right. We are good together. We’re perfectly compatible. Am I willing to give that up when I myself am not even sure I wanted children?
He loves me, I tried to convince myself, though he never said the words. Not that night. Not recently either. The stress from planning the wedding was just getting to the both of us.
“We can be happy together,” he insisted. “I know it, and you know it too. If you loved me, you’d know that we don’t need children to be fulfilled.”
If you loved me, you’d at least try to understand, to compromise, I wanted to say. If you loved me, you would try to put yourself in my shoes, I wanted to scream.
But doing so would surprise him, break the illusion he had of me. I don’t throw tantrums. I don’t yell. It was one of the things he had liked about me. He said I was a woman always in control of my emotions, not given to angry outbursts or emotional pleas. He liked that I treated relationships like a business transaction among grown ups, pitting risks against benefits and making decisions accordingly.
“You understand, right? We can have an amazing future together, just you and I.”
I nodded even as something inside me died, a vision of a life held in my arms. A life created out of love, something that can really, truly be my own. Made from my flesh and blood, a legacy that can live on even as I’ve disappeared from the world. Someone who will always remember me.
The cooling bath water roused me back to the present. Three kids. I still wasn’t quite sure if if I wanted children, but I realized that even then he had calculated his moves, unwilling to tell me what he already knew in his heart to be true… That it wasn’t that he didn’t want children. It was that he didn’t want children with me.
I held my breath as I dunked my head under the water, wishing with everything I was that I could be reborn again. That my past could be erased. That I could become that person he thought I was, someone unfeeling and someone who didn’t care. I broke the surface and took a deep breath, wiping the water from my face. I took another swig of wine as I perused my surroundings.
The bathroom was lit only by three Aster de Villatte candles, their scent enveloping the room. Another splurge. Fifteen years of working and all I had to show for it were beautiful clothes and designer candles. No career development. No husband. No children. Nothing. I’ve never traveled the world. The place I lived in wasn’t even my own… wasn’t even in my name. When did my life become this?
Tonight I’ll allow myself some self pity. Just for the next few minutes. When the clock strikes midnight I will be strong again, I will be me again. But for now I will relish feeling sorry for myself. It happens so rarely it’s not something I ever allow myself to get comfortable with. There was always something to do besides think of yourself. Life moves so fast that no one can afford to slow down, much less stop and breathe. But right now, in this moment, I will let myself be lonely and be sad. If I had any tears in me left, surely I would use them tonight.
The bubbles on the bath were all slowly dissipating and not for the first time in my life I wished I could disappear, too.
“Hello,” I practiced as I was getting out of the car. “Hi, Gia.” Disliking how my voice sounded nervous, I repeated myself, adopting a more confident tone, the one I used for interviews and press releases. “How are you?”
People passed by me as I walked quickly towards the apartment, the number 234 stark against the industrial gray building. There were so many new apartments here… why did she live somewhere that looked out of place and dangerous?
“Hello, Gia,” I said again as I reached the front door, taking a deep breath as I rang the bell with my right hand, my left one currently holding the bottle I’ve brought and the bag of sparklers.
There was no response from inside the house, and though there were glass panels on either side of the door, they afforded me no glimpse into the inside of the apartment. Maybe she had already gone, I thought. Maybe I missed her.
I rang the bell again, and then again. If she wasn’t home then she wouldn’t know that I did this. If she was… well…
“This is 234!” I heard a voice say as the door started opening. “Not 236! 234! How many times…?”
The door fully opened before I could decide on a reason for my incessant doorbell ringing and she appeared in front of me. Or at least i think it’s her. It was a little difficult to tell when the person’s face was covered with a black mask, still shiny, as if it hadn’t dried yet. There was a pink rectangular piece of velcro on top of her head, right by her forehead, and a bun. She was wearing a loose shirt that hit right at her waist, and the same type of pants that she would wear at the hospital, though not rolled up to her knees as she wore it now. Her toes were painted a pale pink, as were her fingernails.
She looked so different from the picture I created in my head, though I wasn’t even sure where that picture came from. I wasn’t really sure what I had imagined, but I can assure you, it hadn’t been this. I had to make a conscious effort to keep my jaw from opening I was so shocked.
Her words drifted off as she realized it was me, and I waited for some self-consciousness to set in, just like it would for any other woman when caught in such a situation. Her eyes, however, remained frank, annoyed even. I think. Like I said, it’s a little hard to tell with the black mud covering her face.
“What are you doing here?” She asked, crossing her arms in front of her chest. The defensive pose she assumed told me that 1) she was definitely caught by surprise, and 2) she was not happy about it.
Everything I had practiced flew out of my head, as I felt myself withering under her scrutiny. I stood at her front door, unable to say a word. She started tapping her foot against the hardwood floor and the sound drove me to distraction, making me nervous. Me! I’m not the one standing here with some kind of shit on my face, dressed like a hobo, and I was the one getting nervous! This is not right… I’ve done nothing wrong, I thought, straightening my spine and glaring right back. I was trying to be spontaneous.
What a ridiculous situation. Absurd. Just like every other time when I had dealt with her in person, I was beset with apprehension and anxiety, emotions I was not familiar with or liked. It’s the last time I’m listening to Joon’s advice ever again. It took him six years to get Na Jeong. In six years I’ll be forty. No fucking way.
Get it together, Lee Jung Jin. Get. It. Together.
Fixing a smile on my face, I lifted the bottle I held towards her, and the bag, as well. Trying to keep my voice sound nonchalant and coolly amused, I deepened my smile before I spoke.
“I brought apple cider,” I said, as I think her eyebrows narrowed. I was fairly positive, judging from the way her eyes were glaring at me, that no sooner than the words were out, that she would say no, thank you, or even more likely, that she would slam the door shut in my face. “And sparklers. Want some company?”
I had just washed my hands after putting my charcoal mask on, debating whether to watch the New Year’s Eve festivities on television or one of the chick flicks Junnie kept in her DVD collection, when the doorbell started ringing.
Aware that I hadn’t been expecting any guests, I walked to the front door and opened it just slightly to see a group of young people, already somewhat intoxicated, standing at the other side.
“Is Josh here?” One of the girls asked, an Asian girl, her age indistinguishable. It’s always hard to tell with Asians. Their appearance belied their age most of the time. “Is Josh here?” She repeated, as if I hadn’t answered her question quickly enough.
“There’s no Josh here,” I said, trying to keep my voice stern. I watched as their eyes took in my appearance, from the bun on the top of my head to the velcro I had used to keep any hair from straying into my mask. Then to my face, surely unidentifiable right now.
“Isn’t this 236?” One of the boys asked. Tall, handsome, but for the sprinkling of pimples on his chin. Gotta love the teenage years.
“No… it’s 234. 236 is just next door,” I said.
“Ahh,” the same boy said. He took the girl’s hand and motioned for the group to follow him. “Sorry about that. Happy new-”
I closed the door shut before he could even finish his sentence. after the roller coaster of emotions I had today I was in no mood for niceties and pleasantries.
I was walking back to the kitchen to get my bottle of wine, more focused now more than ever to finish it off soon so I can go to sleep and get this day over with when I tripped on the hem of my scrub pants, causing me to flail and hit my elbow on one corner of the coffee table.
Shit. Fuck. Shit.
I sat down on the couch and surveyed the damage on the table. It looked fine. But my elbow, not quite so. It was already bright red, and I had no doubt that it would be black and blue by morning. Oh well. I rolled up my pants all the way to my knees, then attempted to carry on with what I was doing before I was interrupted.
I sighed when I went back to the kitchen, finally able to eat some more of my ice cream. I continued eating standing up by the kitchen counter before the bell rang again.
Opening the door a second time, a pink haired girl with her mohawked companion stood on the other side. She was wearing a tutu with black Doc Martens with fishnet stockings on her thighs, and he, a leather jacket and a spiked dog collar. They were holding hands.
“Is this Josh’s house?” The girl asked, chewing on a piece of gum. She tried to crane her neck to take a closer look at the apartment and I swiftly blocked her view. “There’s no party here.”
“Josh doesn’t live here,” I said. “He lives next door.”
“Oh,” her boyfriend said. “You know him?”
“No, I don’t know him,” I replied. “I just know that he lives in 236. Now if you’ll excuse me…”
“Lady, you got some stuff on your face,” the girl commented, her voice in a giggle.
“I don’t care!” I said. “And it’s supposed to be there!”
I closed the door before they even walked off, making the decision to not open the door again. Ever.
I walked to the couch with my pint of ice cream and my wine after popping “Sleepless in Seattle” into the DVD player, prepared to enjoy the rest of my night in blissful oblivion. I had just propped my legs under the throw on the sofa and made myself comfortable with the tv and DVD player remote controls within reach when the doorbell rang again.
For a second I remained where I was, determined to ignore it. I took another ladleful of ice cream and another swallow of wine. When the bell rang I put my ladle down and stood up.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” I complained, sure that there will be more young people looking for Josh on the other side of the door. “I’m coming.” I grabbed the handle and started opening it. “This is 234… Not 236! 234! How many times…?”
My voice faded as I realized that Jung Jin was at my door, looking as handsome and put together as he always did. With my volatile temper held in check, that he could look so composed all the damn time still irritated me to no end. He wore a black suit, a Burberry checked scarf around his neck. His hair was brushed back from his forehead, and his masculine scent hit my nostrils. His hands were covered in tan gloves, and he had a bottle of champagne and a plastic bag in his grasp.
“What are you doing here?” I asked, as my arms crossed instinctively over my chest.
I continued watching him as he took my appearance in, lifting my chin in defiance, daring him to say something. I know how I look. Like I told the people who came before he did, I don’t care. Our gazes met, and judging from the way his dark eyes narrowed at me, I think it’s safe to assume that he didn’t appreciate the way I was staring him down. It was the first time I had seen a little crack on his charming facade, and it made him just a tiny bit more interesting than he already was. Than he already knew he was. Though I bet he didn’t know that this made him more interesting to me than anything else.
Then, in a minute, the glare of annoyance was gone, replaced by a smile. The expression in his eyes transformed from irritation to amusement, and the crater on his left cheek was made more obvious by his widening smile. I was about to repeat my question when he lifted the bottle and the bag he was holding towards me.
“I brought apple cider. And sparklers. Want some company?” He asked, his tone unassuming.
Apple cider? What the hell? Who drinks apple cider on New Year’s Eve? The sparklers, at least, made sense. For a second I was about to say no, then was tempted to grab the stuff he brought and slam the door shut. The day I’ve had made me irritable and sensitive. It made me sorry company and I knew I could use both to justify any acts of rudeness.
But then I heard Teddy’s advice in my head, that life was too short, that I was only young once. And even more strongly, my sister’s plea, for me to try again, to start somewhere at least. I promised her I would try. I promised her, and and I never break my promises.
And so, rather than closing the door to his very handsome face, I found myself opening it wider and stepping to the side.
“Yeah, okay,” I said softly. It seemed he was surprised by my response, since he just continued standing there, making no move to leave or enter. I shook my head as I studied his face. “Well… Are you coming in?”
“Yeah, okay,” I imagined her saying. I remained rooted to the spot, sure that my imagination was now playing tricks on me. Just like I imagined her opening the door and stepping aside, I was also now dreaming that she was letting me into her place. She raised an eyebrow at me and I struggled to remember what I was about to say. Or whatever else I had planned on saying, until it hit me that I hadn’t gotten farther in my planning than asking her how she was doing. To be honest I didn’t even think I’d get that far. “Well… Are you coming in?”
I blinked and there she was, that mask still on her face, waiting for me to do something. Hesitantly I took a step into the apartment, unsure whether she would tackle me down. I was still quite unsure whether she just issued me an invitation to enter. When I passed the door’s threshold without any incident, I breathed a sigh of relief and braced myself for the sight that would surely greet me. I had no expectations from the place judging from its exterior. And I know nurses don’t earn that much more here than they did in Korea.
I dragged my gaze away from her mud covered face, unwrapping the scarf from my neck, to look at her apartment and found myself dumbstruck instead. What the hell?
The apartment was no apartment, I realized, instead it was a spacious loft, the two walls not facing the street covered in glass. There was a large crystal chandelier at the entryway, and golden hardwood floors. It had an open plan design, with the living room and kitchen directly connected, undivided by any walls. I looked above and saw another room just above the lounge, directly overlooking below. The kitchen was gleaming, as if it had never been used. The whole house, in fact, was gleaming, as if it was a showroom, as if no one lived here. I was astounded. It was the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen, here in San Francisco and in Korea. Is she a chaebol, after all? She couldn’t possibly afford to live here, not with her salary. The utility bill must be high as well.
She walked past me and I followed her to the living room before she waved a hand towards the couch, directing me to sit. I sat down on the couch, examining the container of ice cream on the table, already half eaten, and the bottle of wine, already half drunk. There was a ladle resting on a piece of paper towel next to two remote controls. Tom Hanks was on the screen, talking on the phone, then Ray Charles’ voice singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” soaring in the background. Sleepless in Seattle. I would never admit it willingly but I owned that film as well.
“Do you want something to drink?” She asked from the kitchen and I didn’t reply, still looking around.
Amazing. The place was beautifully decorated, as if it had been done by a professional. All the furnishings and interior decor seemed to have been handpicked just for this house, everything tastefully done and placed carefully.
“Do you want something to drink?” She asked again, now standing in front of me. “Do you want wine or apple cider? I would offer you coffee but I don’t have any. Or tea.”
“Wine would be good,” I said absently, my eyes focusing on the tattoo just above her right ankle.
Tattoos are not common among Korean women, or Koreans period. The only people I’d ever seen with tattoos were bikers and convicts, though I must admit that I saw quite a few normal people with them in New York City when I lived there, but never on a woman.
I stood up and shrugged out of my suit jacket, before rolling up my cuff sleeves. I placed my jacket on one arm of the couch then watched her as she walked to the kitchen, feeling a bit dazed. This is still so surreal. I never actually thought she would let me in. Her surprising response didn’t give me enough time to actually formulate a plan. She pulled a red paper cup from the cupboard and brought it to the living room then poured a bit of wine from the bottle on the coffee table before she handed it to me unceremoniously and sat down on the opposite end of the couch.
I took a sip of wine, watching her as she avoided looking straight at me, her eyes directed fully on the television screen. She’s nervous. She tried not to look as if she was but the way she kept changing her position told me that she was. Interesting.
She stood up from the couch before folding the throw that was lying on it, picking up the ice cream and depositing it back in the freezer. She came back for the ladle and washed it in the sink. I continued to watch her as she dried her hands on a paper towel for a few minutes, wondering if she will ever sit down and relax.
“Are you hungry?” She asked suddenly and I thought about her question. Joon had called me before I could order from the bar menu and didn’t get the chance to eat anything for dinner except for a handful of peanuts.
“Yeah, a little,” I said and she nodded once, as if relieved to have something to do. Even now I couldn’t help the thrill of anticipation thinking about what she could possibly serve me. Having lived by myself for so long I had grown accustomed to cooking for myself or eating out a lot. But… nothing beats homemade food, especially food made by a woman. My Omma was a fantastic cook, as were all my sisters. And Na Jeong, as well. I had never known a woman who lacked the ability.
She opened the cupboards and looked at its contents, talking to herself. When she didn’t deem the offerings on the lower two shelves acceptable, I heard a sigh before she rolled up the left sleeve on her shirt, giving me a glimpse of another tattoo on her left arm, then another on her right scapular bone when the neckline of her shirt fell down a shoulder. The view of the dark swirls and letters on her skin were fascinating, as if I was looking at something forbidden. I never thought that tattoos were attractive, but they were on her. Unexpected, too. I couldn’t help but wonder what else she could be hiding.
She reached with her right arm and was unsuccessful, then her left. The hem of her shirt lifted dangerously up her back and I tried to look away from the view of the skin just above her spine, but I was unable to. Another tattoo greeted me on her left lower back, a lotus flower, its pink hue outlined in black stark against her complexion. My mind went blank, and I resisted the urge to rush over to her then and trace the outline with a finger. Or my lips.
I swallowed nervously, then forced myself to sit down. Then stood up again. She was not having much luck with what she was doing, and I put my glass of wine down before I walked to the kitchen, reminding myself that I was only helping her. That I had no other intentions but that. I walked over to where she stood, until her back was only about a foot away, then spoke.
“What are you reaching for?” I asked softly, and all but felt her spine tense up, as if she just now realized how close I was.
“A paper plate,” she said, her voice calm. I would think her unaffected except from this close I can see the pulse jumping on one side of her neck, and I can see the way she avoided looking back at me.
Without saying anything else, I casually reached over her and grabbed the unopened package of plates on the top shelf, my forearm brushing her arm on its way down. Prickles of sensation bloomed where her skin had met mine, and I found myself wishing that I could look at her face, mud mask and all. She, however, remained steadfastly stubborn, her gaze fixed on everywhere but me.
She was so close I could smell her hair, the scent nutty and earthy. Delicious. I wanted to come closer and take a closer sniff. There were tendrils of hair just fallen out of the knot on top of her hair, drifting alluringly down a slender neck. If I placed my lips just… there.. I would probably get beaten. And she would definitely never speak to me again.
The temptation was great, even as I reminded myself that I am thirty four years old. A grown man. Not some randy teenage boy seeing a woman for the first time. Her hand reached behind her, as if feeling my eyes on her, to tuck a strand of hair back into her bun. There had been no grace to what she did, no outward invitation. But it was such a womanly thing to do, and all at once I felt as if I should get out of this place, a warning at the back of my mind repeating itself. This… challenge had gotten out of hand. And I was losing.
The woman was fully dressed, her face covered by a black mask, and I was shaking like a school boy. I’ve seen naked women before… lots of naked women, so why was I so fascinated at the sight of her neck and her hands?
“I need to go to the bathroom,” she suddenly said, her voice strained. She moved away from me quickly, and had disappeared behind one of the doors before I could say anything else.
I walked back to the living room, all of a sudden dizzy and lightheaded. It’s just because I’m hungry, I tried to reassure myself, It’s because I need food. I hope she gives me food to eat soon, before I completely lose my mind.
“What are you reaching for?” I heard Jung Jin ask from directly behind me, his voice just as I remembered, even deeper from this close. I stayed looking in front of me, afraid of looking at him. Why did he have to stand so close?
“A paper plate,” I stammered out, forcing my voice to stay neutral and emotionless. The fact that I haven’t been in such close proximity to a man alone in so long, coupled with everything that had happened today, made me uncharacteristically out of sorts. My heart was beating rapidly in my chest, and I felt cornered.
He stayed silent and reached a long arm over my right shoulder, easily grabbing the package of paper plates on the top shelf. I knew I shouldn’t have thrown that up there. Why did I do that? Uhmm, because you didn’t realize you were going to need it? My inner monologue was interrupted by the feel of his forearm against my arm, goosebumps traveling to where our skin had met. I closed my eyes and blew out a breath, wishing and hoping that he didn’t realize just how affected I was. What is wrong with me?
I felt him lean slightly over me, and I stayed unmoving, undecided about what to do if he did something unexpected. I was all too aware of everything all at once, from the way he smelled, to the strands of hair now falling out of place. Self-consciously I brought my hand back and tried to push some of the hair back into the bun, knowing that he was still watching me. I could feel his eyes on me, like he couldn’t look away.
“I need to go to the bathroom,” I said, my voice coming out in a croak.
I walked away from him before he could say anything, before he could do anything else, and went straight to the guest bathroom just down the hall. Once there I firmly locked the door behind me, then turned the sink on. If I had known I was expecting a guest, I wouldn’t have drunk so much of the wine already. If I had known it would be like this, I wouldn’t have let him in, promises be damned.
It wasn’t until i was about to splash my face with cold water that I happened to look up and realized that the charcoal mask was still on fully dried and cracking, now left on about ten minutes longer than I was directed. Of course, I thought. No wonder he had been looking at me so closely. He must have thought I was insane, to be entertaining with this stuff still on my face. The velcro that had been secured on the top of my head was now slightly drooped as well, no doubt contributing to the crazy look that I was sporting.
I shook my head and washed my face, making sure to carefully rinse all traces of the mask. I pulled the velcro off and placed it on the side of the sink before realizing that my hair was still wet from the bath. I loosened the bun and took my hair down, running my fingers through the strands to tame it in some way. I debated running to my room for a minute to change my clothes before I decided against it. After all, what was the point? He had already seen me in this. There was nothing wrong with what I was wearing. And besides, didn’t I want him to lose interest anyway? Well congratulations, I silently told myself, I’m sure the man is already halfway there.
After drying my face I made my way out of the bathroom to see Jung Jin back on the couch, his back to me, fully engrossed in the film. I went back to the kitchen and opened the package of paper plates before pulling one out. I opened the pantry and took out some of the things that I had bought earlier and then opened what I thought he might like and placing it on the plate. For presentation’s sake I pulled out a bottle of ketchup and drew a smiley face.
I was walking to the living room, the plate balanced in my hands when I heard his voice, sardonic and teasing.
“I am really looking forward to this,” he said, not looking at me. “I haven’t eaten all day. So… what are you…”
His words stopped abruptly when I reached the coffee table and deposited the plate in front of him. I sat down and waited for a reaction, fully aware that it wasn’t what he had been expecting. I watched as his eyes took in the cheez curls, piled high on one quarter of the plate, some marshmallows on another, apples opposite, and a bit of crumbly cheese. And a smiley face in ketchup in the middle.
He kept on blinking at the plate, as if he couldn’t believe his eyes, and I resisted a smug smile. I know… it’s quite impressive for someone who doesn’t cook. I was impressed, as well.
“You know,” he said, his voice careful. “Most women like to show off their culinary skills when guests are around.”
“I know…” I agreed, proud of myself. Why did he think I went overboard with this plate? “This is my culinary skill.”
“Oh.” It appeared as if I’d struck the man speechless, his mouth opening and closing in puzzlement.
He kept looking at the plate, still disbelievingly, and I thought something was wrong. Maybe he didn’t like ketchup, and wondered if I should offer to take it off. I need to do something, I thought, since he can’t seem to tear his gaze away from it.
“I’ll take it back,” i said, lifting the plate off the coffee table.
“it’s fine,” he said, trying to swat my hand away.
“You don’t like it,” I said, attempting again to take the plate back to the kitchen.
“I said it’s fine!” he said, taking the plate away from me then lifting his eyes to look at me. “Really, it’s o…”
In an instant he quieted, his eyes darkening as he looked at me for the first time since I came out of the bathroom. I watched the way they traveled over my face, over my eyes, my nose, my mouth. He licked his lips and I realized that one of his hands was still on my wrist, warm and steady. He swallowed and I found myself doing the same. I was nervous. Nervous and upset. That he didn’t like my food. That’s it. That’s all.
For once I wished that teasing smile would come back to his face, rehearsed and practiced. But it didn’t. I wished he would pull away. But he didn’t. Instead he only brought his face uncomfortably closer to mine, his eyes intense and focused, before he responded.
“It’s perfect,” he said, his voice rumbling through me. I got the feeling he wasn’t talking about the food anymore. “And I like it. I like it a lot.”
My heart skittered in my chest, and I knew what I was feeling. I was not an untouched maiden in the olden days, nor was I a heroine in a romance novel, pure and naive, who doesn’t know desire when she feels it, mistaking it for some other silly, unrelated thing instead. His gaze lingered on my lips, and I broke my wrist loose from his grasp. I tried to command my feet to move, but they wouldn’t. Treacherous, traitorous things. It had seemed that nothing today was meant to go my way, and now that bad luck had extended to tonight, as well.
The way he was looking at me made it feel like this whole loft was not big enough for the both of us. Like there was no corner I could run to that would be far enough. Hell… It didn’t feel like the whole of San Francisco was big enough. The walls were all of a sudden constraining and suffocating, the tension choking me. It’s been too long since I’d been this close to a man. Panic rose inside me though I kept my face expressionless.
I needed some air. I needed… Something.
“Let’s go to the roof,” I suddenly said, and he remained silent, his eyes still locked on my face. “We can see the fireworks there.”
Dumbass. Idiot. Moron.
If I was a native English speaker I was positive that I would have found more adjectives to insult myself with. But seeing that I was not, I’m afraid those three would have to do.
I looked at her face over me, her eyebrows furrowed in annoyance, holding on to the plate for dear life. I found myself licking my lips as my eyes traveled leisurely over her face and became aware that my hand was still on her wrist. Idiot. How could you have thought this face was plain? Dumbass. The black mask washed off, her face had no makeup, and I thought it one of the loveliest I had ever seen. Moron. The sum of the parts greater than each individual feature? Bullshit. You are such a bullshitter.
The thoughts were all mixing in my head, leaving me speechless. It didn’t help that her eyes, guarded and vulnerable, changed from the color of lichen to that of the silkiest milk chocolate right before my eyes, their gold flecks sparkling with an emotion I was having a hard time discerning. Or that her hair, now down, its glossy length resting on my hand, begging to touched. Or that her lips, so harmless from a distance away, were inviting me closer, the fuller lower lip in a pout. Jesus.
I swallowed the lump that had formed in my throat, and with some degree of male satisfaction, watched as she did the same. I moved my face just an inch closer, daring her to be the first to pull away.
“It’s perfect.” You’re perfect. “And I like it.” I like you. “I like it a lot.” I like you a lot.
She pried her wrist loose from my hand, though she stayed right where she was. Her face was unreadable, as if she had brought her wall back up. The air between us continued to thicken and tighten, and I feared that my hold on my restraint was loosening.
“Let’s go to the roof,” she suddenly said, her eyes breaking away from mine. “We can see the fireworks there.”
She picked up the bag of sparklers then was gone before she gave me a chance to say yes or say no, leaving me no choice but to do as she suggested. If I hadn’t been so dazed I would have been pissed off. Even so I still had to force my legs to stand up and follow her to the back of the loft, then up two long flights of stairs leading to a door. It wasn’t until I had reached the top of the stairs and was about to step out onto where she led me that it registered what she actually said. The fucking roof… And I was deathly afraid of heights. Dammit.
It won’t look cool to tell her now that I can’t do it. That’s not manly at all. You can do this, Jung Jin. You can do this. I took a few deep breaths and closed my eyes for a second before opening them again. I took a step forward and walked out, my eyes scanning for her automatically and without success.
The sight that greeted me instead were twinkling lights around the perimeter of the rooftop’s railings, shining happily in the dark, lighting up the roof in an almost dreamlike scene. There were two rows of white flowers in the center of the space, parallel to each other, both flanking two lounge chairs in treated pine wood, a small round table in between. The whole roof, like the house, was amazing. An oasis in a city. Absolutely beautiful.
And yet it was still not as beautiful as the image she made, leaning down towards the table to put down what she had brought and to light the glass caged candle in its holder. She straightened her spine and stood upright, her side profile to me, before she walked to the roof’s edge, arms wrapped around herself. Her long hair was behind her, blowing slightly in the breeze. She looked so close to me, and still felt so far.
I felt something shift inside me, and I could have stayed standing where I was just looking at her. I fought the urge to walk over to her and wrap my arms around her waist, to bury my face in her hair. I found myself wanting to know everything I could about her. All at once. Right now.
I walked over to where she was standing, my steps hesitant, my fear overwhelmed by the desire to just be close to her. Though she knew I was standing there she hardly spared me a glance, and I knew I would have to be the first to speak.
“How…” I started, my voice coming out in a stammer. “How can you afford this house? This place is unbelievable.”
“It’s my best friend’s,” she said quietly. “I live here on discounted rent… Friend rate and that.”
Finally she looked at me and gave me a small smile, and I swore something inside me sighed. Ridiculous.
“And the garden?” I asked. “And the lights? Did you do it yourself?”
“No… Joon-ie and I put the lights up when I moved in five years ago. I just never took them down.”
“Joon-ie?” I repeated. That name again. Why does his name keep popping out every single damn time I am dealing with her? I tried to tamp down on the annoyance and kept my tone civil.
“Yeah… Joon-ie, my best friend.”
“Joon-ie’s your best friend?”
“Yeah,” she said. “We’ve been friends for more than a decade.”
“And the flowers?” I asked suspiciously. “Do you take care of them?”
“I told you already…. I’m not good with things that are alive,” she said with a slight laugh. “Joon-ie let me choose the flowers, then had sprinklers installed. Those flowers wouldn’t have made it for long otherwise.”
“Ah,” I replied.
Fucking Joon-ie. Perfect. I bet he knew just what to say to make her smile, to make her laugh. He had a more than ten year advantage to be with her, to get to know her. I bought her a bouquet of flowers but he built her a garden. I bet she didn’t give the stuff he gives her away. I had never hated or envied anyone more in my life.
“Mr. Lee,” she said softly and I turned my eyes to see hers searching mine.
“Please, call me Jung Jin.”
“Your client is my patient. It would be unprofessional to call you anything but Mr. Lee.”
“My client was your patient, not any longer. And I’ve seen you with a charcoal mask on… Surely that deserves being on a first name basis with you.”
“If I called you Jung Jin,” she said. “Will you stop pursuing me?”
“Call me Mr.Lee as long as you want.”
She looked away from me and out into the distance, where I knew Mission Bay was. She looked deep in thought, as if she was not here with me at all.
“Mr.Lee,” she said again, her voice even softer. “Why are you here?”
Why was I here? Damned if I knew. Even now I didn’t quite understand why there was so much urgency to being here tonight. Except that there was. How do I explain that I wanted to see her face… That I wanted to see her? That i wanted to hear her voice and see her smile? There was no way I could say such things without making a fool of myself. And I haven’t been a fool for anyone, not in a long long time. I wasn’t about to start now.
“I like you.” I said the sentence quickly, as if by doing so it would make it less serious, as if by saying it casually I would make its weight lighter.
This is the time when a woman would throw themselves in my arms before planting a kiss on my lips. I haven’t said that phrase in a long time, and the last time I said it I hardly knew what it meant. I was a kid. Things were different now. Everything was different now.
I sneaked a look over to her, convinced that she would be looking at me with a smile. Hearing those words, at the very least, made any woman feel flattered, even if they didn’t feel the same way. Her reaction confounded me. She looked even more lost, if that was possible, her shoulders markedly more slumped.
“You don’t like me,” she said. “You don’t know me. You like the idea of me, the challenge of chasing me. I promise you, that had I shown you the same interest that you had shown me, if I had reacted to you the way I’m sure every other woman had, that you would not be standing here with me now, and I would just be just another woman whom you met.”
Her response seemed familiar, and I realized why. It was not so long ago that I shared this same conversation, except the roles had been reversed. Wasn’t I supposed to be the one saying this stuff?
“You don’t know that,” I said defensively. “You don’t know me.”
“That’s precisely my point, Mr. Lee. I don’t know you.” She looked at me then, her expression flat. “I could only judge you by what I have seen and by what I know of human behavior.”
“What does that even mean?”
“Human beings behave in predictable ways, sadly. They are trained to do what they’ve always done, those things shaped by everything they’ve experienced in life. I look at you and I see a handsome man. A successful man.”
“And that’s a bad thing because?” I really couldn’t understand what the issue was.
“You are in your thirties, early thirties I would guess. You carry yourself with a self confidence that younger men don’t have. You’re charming and know your words around a woman. You know how to woo them, to make them fall in love with you. You know which methods to employ to accomplish such goals, if that was what you wanted, which tells me that you either come from a family dominated by women or you grew up surrounded by female friends. You’re rich at a rather young age, which tells me that you’re intelligent enough and determined enough. You’re used to getting what you want and used to being in control. How am I doing so far?”
I said nothing and she smiled, fully aware that she was right on the money. I stewed internally and wondered what the hell this woman was getting at.
“You go from Seoul to San Francisco without a thought which tells me that you probably like to travel, and well versed in making a home wherever you go. It also tells me that you like the newness of things, the process of learning and figuring things out. You manage a person for a living, but you don’t just manage any person, you manage a world class athlete, which tells me that you don’t do things halfway, that mediocre things, that mediocre people, wouldn’t hold your interest for long. You…”
“What’s your point?” I said, interrupting her diatribe.
“My point is…” she said softly, “…I am only extraordinary because I did something you never expected, something you weren’t used to. Once the newness of me wears off and you have me where you want me, when you discover that I am just a normal person who does normal people things, that I would lose the sheen of mystery you had shrouded me with and boredom will set in. You’re used to calling the shots, probably, and used to being the one calling the end of a relationship. Any relationship. Maybe you’ve never been in love, maybe you’ve loved once and got hurt… I don’t know that for sure, but I do know this. Once you figure out that I am not as complicated as you thought I was, I will be forgotten. A fond memory, if even that.”
She paused what she was saying and I thought she was done. I took a step closer to her and she didn’t even notice.
“I earn a living taking care of people, Mr. Lee. I’ve become an expert in observing people’s behaviors, in reading between the lines. And people behave in predictable ways. We are designed that way, to bring a measure of familiarity and a degree of control in a life that is often unfamiliar and ungovernable. All the things we do… start out as a decision, one single decision. We all keep making the same choice until it no longer requires thinking, until it becomes a routine, and then, eventually, with enough repetition, a habit. You are a man used to conquering, and I am a woman used to my freedom. That in itself is a conflict of interest.”
There was a sudden noise in the air and I realized that the countdown was to midnight had now begun. Next to me Gia wrapped her arms more tightly around herself, her mouth counting down with the noise in the background. She closed her eyes as she got to one and fireworks shot up in the air, exploding in the sky. I was so intent on watching her and wondering what could have made her the way she was that I couldn’t even appreciate it. The words she said, the truths she guessed about me, were disconcerting, and coming from her mouth, even her very lovely mouth, they were things I didn’t want to hear.
“You don’t know me,” I repeated. “You can’t possibly know what I’ll do.”
“Every year, people make resolutions for the new year, resolutions they will never ever meet. It’s as predictable as the seasons changing. I may not know you,” she said, her eyes boring into mine. “But I’ve known men like you. I’ve loved men like you.” She walked back towards the staircase and without turning around again to face me, spoke from the door. “There’s a staircase leading to the street from up here, Mr. Lee. Thank you for everything. I trust you can find your way out.”
Above us the fireworks were still exploding, the colors bright and happy. What a contrast to what I was feeling. I didn’t even know what I was feeling. I was confused, angry, fascinated all at once. I’d said in the beginning that I would only stick around until I knew what she thought of me, and yet I didn’t want to leave even after she told me just that. I didn’t want to leave even as her hand grasped the doorknob leading her back to her best friend’s loft, ready to go without so much as a goodbye.
Before I knew it I had walked towards her, and placed my hand over hers. She stiffened in front of me and I spoke.
“You say you’ve known men like me before, that you’ve loved men like me before, but I can assure you, that you had not,” I whispered. “Because if you had, you would not be spending tonight alone, celebrating the new year on your own.”
She turned around and faced me, her eyes unguarded for one second, and I was taken aback by the vulnerability that I glimpsed in them. A feeling close to tenderness washed over me, but before I could figure out what it meant, the look in her eyes was gone, replaced by nothing more than curiosity.
“You speak in terms of probability and predictability, and yet you fail to recognize that human beings have something on their side.” At her questioning glance, I answered, “the ability to make a decision that can change everything. The time to be able to figure things out. You put emphasis on this,” I said, referring to her mind, letting my free hand smooth the hair over her forehead, “but not this,” I said, pointing to her heart.
“The heart is nothing but a muscle. It’s too fragile to be trusted with such important matters.” She countered, as if reciting from a book.
I’ve said those exact words before, and I believed them then. Hearing her say those words back to me, in such an emotionless way, spurned me to challenge everything she thought she knew.
“What about attraction?” I asked. “You can deny it all you want but I know what I’ve seen, and I know that you felt what I felt. What of that?”
“Attraction is nothing but the outpouring of chemicals, adrenaline and cortisol, into the human brain, making the body believe things that are otherwise false. These hormones account for the building of sweat, the racing heartbeat, the drying of mouths. Everything is accounted for, Mr. Lee. Everything.”
“You forgot one thing,” I said, leaning close to her ear. “Perhaps the most important thing.”
I allowed myself a look of her extraordinary face, her eyes watching me through a narrowed gaze. She licked her lips before she spoke, and I was beset with feelings of momentary, temporary triumph.
“What?” She asked, her voice nervous for the first time tonight.
“Instinct,” I answered, and took her lips in mine.